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A birding challenge worthy of Wisconsin

Photo by Kyle Lloyd Arpke Two Snow Buntings in Kewaunee County

By Kyle Lloyd Arpke 

I’m writing this article as I drive back home after a six-month odyssey that spanned the entire state of Wisconsin. Well,“odyssey” is definitely way too strong of a word, but I’m not lying about the second part. Over the last six months, I challenged myself to go birding in all 72 counties in our great state of Wisconsin.

This challenge formed in my mind about a year ago. I had joined the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program, which logs volunteer hours by the county (the same is true for everyone’s eBird profile) and I always thought it would be fun to hit them all. However, I lead a very busy life, so I put that ambition in the back of my head until it came creeping back in June. I was in Jackson and Eau Claire counties for Natural Resources Foundation bird banding trips when I just decided to go for it. My wife and I made plans to see the Mississippi River during that trip, so we tacked on some birding and the rest became history!

 HAUNTS Black crowned Night Heron in Brown County 1 23

Photo by Kyle Lloyd Arpke Black-crowned Night Heron in Brown County

I didn’t give myself a lot of rules, other than I had to at least report a sighting in every county. Seeing as how I was documenting every place, not just in words but in photographs, too, I had the incentive of trying to stay until I at least caught something in front of my camera lens. This didn’t always happen, but it kept me honest along the way. I birded for 20 minutes in some counties, and for hours and hours in others. I registered 33 lifers and saw as few as 3 sightings and as high as 29 (except in my home county), which showcases my newness more than anything. I started birding near the end of 2020, so my eyes aren’t as seasoned as most. Still, I came away with some amazing experiences.

I work as a freelance videographer and editor and have been blessed to travel across the United States to amazing locales like the critter-rich Florida Everglades and the bone-filled badlands of Montana. Places that are filled with awe and wonder. But I’m here to say that for as cool as the rest of this planet is, don’t take our wonderful state for granted. From the Wisconsin, St. Croix, and Mississippi rivers to Lakes Superior and Michigan. From the Moquah Barrens toTrempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and Horicon Marsh to Necedah, there are locales filled to the brim with birdlife and views that leave one's mouth agape. The great beauty of this challenge is that I have come away with birding spots I will return to for years to come.

HAUNTS Sabines Gull in Douglas County 1 23

Photo by Kyle Lloyd Arpke Sabines Gull in Douglas County

 It’s important that I thank WSO and the greater Wisconsin birding community for helping me along my journey. All of the counties I birded in Chapter 4 of my online birding odyssey column were conducted using WSO’s new online version of “Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts,” which became an invaluable tool across the entire challenge.

A big thank you to those that wrote detailed instructions on walkable trails or best roadside spots. You saved me a ton of time while pointing me to one-of-a-kind locations like Fish Lake State Wildlife Area and Jackson Marsh SWA.

My wife and I also had the pleasure of enjoying a Friday morning at WSO’s annual Jeagerfest gathering out on Wisconsin Point in Superior. We met a ton of birders and are committed to enjoying the entire Jaegerfest weekend in the future. One of my biggest regrets during this challenge was the lack of group birding I engaged with, so anytime I did meet other birders was a real treat. I learned a lot and came away with a ton more birds.

When it comes to reading about my challenge in detail, I’m not sure where to point someone other than the beginning of it. Chapter 3 has a Marsh Wren photo that I adore. Chapter 7 consists of almost 4,000 words as I made my way through a huge chunk of the state’s northern counties. I ended the challenge with a ton of Bald Eagle sightings, so that was really cool, too.

HAUNTS Male <b>American Kestrel</b> with lunch in Walworth County 1 23

Photo by Kyle Lloyd Arpke Male American Kestrel with lunch in Walworth County

I leave this challenge tired but proud of going out and doing something ambitious. I have no clue what I’ll do next. I’m birding for two weeks in Costa Rica in January so maybe I’ll commit to doing a Big Birding Year. At the same time, I also bought my first home, and it sits along the Oak Leaf Trail, so maybe a challenge surrounding backyard birding is the way to go.

As far as articles and photos go, I have a few conservation stories planned for the front half of the year, and would really like to hone those skills. I love wildlife photography, but I love it, even more, when I can put a purpose behind it. Finally, even though I went to every county, I feel like I missed a ton of important places. I really want to photograph Greater Prairie Chickens, so I hope my 2023 includes a trip or two to the Buena Vista Grasslands, where WSO owns a chunk of conserved land.

As for you lovely readers, if anyone is in a birding funk, maybe this is the year to set your usual bird lists aside and take on a new birding challenge. If you want to take on a statewide county challenge, it won’t be easy, but Wisconsin is filled with rewards. Just do yourself a favor and start it now instead of in June.

More on the journey

Kyle Arpke is a freelance filmmaker, wildlife and conservation photojournalist, and naturalist from the Milwaukee area.Through the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program Kyle volunteers for such organizations as Humboldt Park Friends, Schlitz Audubon, Glacial Lakes Conservatory and eBird. You can read more about his journey in the online publication Milwaukee Record at and you can follow on Instagram@thekarp14