Thursday, July 23, 2015

Nature Geek Vacation Destinations - Horicon Marsh (Waupun, WI)

Yesterday I shared photographs taken at the International Crane Foundation near Baraboo, WI.  Just a little over an hour to the east of ICF is another must-see destination for nature lovers - Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Located about 6.5 hours from Mid-Michigan, Horicon Marsh consists of two adjacent units.  One is the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge which is operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Connecting to this is the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area which is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  Both the USFWS and the Wisconsin DNR operate visitor centers on their respective parcels (the WDNR visitor center opens in August 2015).  There is also a private non-profit nature center called Marsh Haven that is located just outside the refuge.

Our planned visit to was short, we were passing through the area on our way to the Aldo Leopold Foundation and only left time in our schedule to drive down the refuge's aptly-named "Ternpike" Auto Tour - a three mile drive through the northern edge of the refuge.

Along the drive there are several parking areas and pullouts with interpretive signs that explain both the human and natural history of Horicon Marsh.

At the second stop, we saw the highlight of our visit.

Whooping Crane at Horicon Marsh

That white bird way off in the middle distance is a Whooping Crane (Grus americana)!  We actually saw it from the first stop on the auto tour, but it was so far away that I assumed it was an egret without looking at it closely.  However at the second pullout on the auto tour there was a crowd observing the bird through through binoculars - later we learned that this group of was from Zambia and was visiting Horicon Marsh as part of a tour sponsored by the International Crane Foundation.  At this point we realized it was not an egret.  The black wingtips give it away as a Whooping Crane.

Whooping Crane displaying its distinctive black wingtips.

Why is this so exciting?  

The Whooping Crane is one of the rarest birds in North America.  There are less than 500 of them in the wild.  The adult population in the eastern United States is less than one hundred birds.  To see one of them in the wild is pretty amazing.  

So what was next after seeing a Whooping Crane?

Next stop, a floating boardwalk in the marsh!

Dozens of swallows were using the boardwalk as a landing pad

Swallows on the boardwalk
Swallows resting on the boardwalk - some of them (like the one in the foreground) were lying on their sides enjoying the sunshine

Most of the swallows were Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica).  Other swallows included Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)

A Barn Swallow resting on the boardwalk

Some of the Barn Swallows were nesting on an elevated observation platform in the marsh.

An adult Barn Swallow feeding an eager youngster

Other birds that we saw from (or on) the boardwalk included Black Terns (Chlidonias niger), Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), and Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus).

A pair of Black Terns on the boardwalk at Horicon Marsh
Double-crested Cormorants

In addition to the birds, the marsh seemed to be full of dragonflies including Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina) - unfortunately I was never able to get a photo of this species.  Every stump and scrap of wood in the swamp had its resident group of sunbathing Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta).

Painted Turtles enjoying the sun

On the day that we visited, there were just enough clouds in the sky to cast interesting reflections in the water.

The floating boardwalk at Horicon Marsh

A view from the boardwalk at Horicon Marsh

After leaving the boardwalk, there were a few more stops along the drive.  At the final stop, we saw this small flock of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  Although not as exciting as the Whooping Cranes, we were still excited to see this species - they rarely occur in Mid-Michigan.

American White Pelicans at Horicon Marsh

Despite not being a birder, I probably could have spent all day exploring Horicon Marsh.  As I mentioned earlier, we never made it to the USFWS or WDNR visitor centers.  There is also a large network of foot/bike paths that crisscross the refuge.  If we return to the area in the future, I definitely plan on allowing more time to explore this beautiful, interesting place.

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