Saturday Aug. 10 brought perfect weather, with a 7:00 AM temperature around 66 degrees, partly cloudy skies, and nearly calm winds. Birders began gathering along Highway 49 well before that – greeting other attendees and scanning the marsh for birds of interest. Altogether, we had nearly 60 people join us this year!
The bird spectacle around us was quite impressive, with lots of ducks, pelicans, egrets and other species present in good numbers. The only disappointment was the fairly low number of shorebirds that were present on the mudflats. The habitat seemed like it would be decent for sandpipers, but the water at this site had been low all summer, and perhaps too much algae was now present? Around 20 Least Sandpipers were spotted, and maybe half that number of Semipalmated Plovers. A larger plover was also observed, but there was uncertainty about whether it was an American Golden or Black-bellied Plover.
We gathered together for brief introductions and announcements, but the traffic along this highway was noisy and dangerous, so we decided to find a quieter place for birding. Since the Auto Tour (our normal destination) was still closed for repairs and re-paving, we thought we would visit the east end of the Old Marsh Road instead. The group re-convened in the big parking area on the east side of the marsh, giving folks a moment to use the bathrooms there, and also to arrange carpooling to our next destination.
From there we drove south to Point Road, and after parking cars the group began a hike out onto the east end Old Marsh Road – starting a little after 8:00 AM. The first section was lined with trees on both sides, and a variety of birds were heard and seen – including Eastern Wood-Pewee, Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, and Downy Woodpecker.
Group birds along Old Marsh Road. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
Soon, the two-track trail entered the open marsh, and a muddy section to our left had several Solitary Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs – providing good views. A female (or perhaps immature) Yellow-headed Blackbird was also present. Black-crowned Night-Herons (both adults and juveniles) were flying about, and families of American Coots were seen in several places – as well as both adult and juvenile Pied-billed Grebes.
Juvenile American Coots. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
From time to time, we were lucky enough to spot Least Bitterns that were taking short flights across the marsh, finally dropping down into the cattails. In most cases they would disappear into the vegetation, but a few people were able to spot one as it perched. A couple of American Bitterns were also spotted.
Rails would periodically call from the nearby cattails, including both Virginia and Sora. On a couple of occasions some of us thought we may have heard King Rails “kekking” out in the marsh, but the calls were brief and intermittent, so we couldn’t be certain. A couple of Virginia Rail families were spotted among the cattails, with several black “fuzzball” babies scampering about.
At least two families of Common Gallinules were observed along our hike, with their young birds also looking like black fuzzballs, but with bright red beaks. Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were also present in various places – either flying or standing sedately – along with a single Green Heron.
Family of Common Gallinules. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
Scanning further in the distance brought views of American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and a couple of young Northern Harriers with their bright orangey-brown chests. We also heard the loud trumpeting calls of Trumpeter Swans, and a group of three flew right past us!
Trumpeter Swans flying overhead. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
Quite a few Black Terns were flying about during our hike, including molting adults and young birds. In addition to the shorebirds mentioned earlier, other species observed along the way included Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, Least, Semipalmated, Pectoral and Spotted Sandpipers, as well as a few Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Snipe.
After a while, the day started to get warm under the open sun, so we slowly made our way back to the parked cars -- arriving around 11:20 AM. The group then headed over to Highway Z to observe two immature Whooping Cranes that were feeding down in a field. This was certainly a highlight for many attendees!
Two young Whooping Cranes. Photo taken by Tom Schultz.
From there we headed back to the parking lot to unload any carpooling riders, and then our group made a brief stop back along Hwy. 49 to re-check the shorebird ponds to see if any new birds had shown up, but unfortunately the mudflat was still pretty devoid of sandpipers. That wrapped up our morning field trip, and any remaining attendees departed for home. We’ll look forward to next year, when the Horicon auto tour should once again be open!
Thanks to everyone who attended, and to Jeff Baughman for co-leading this event.
-Tom Schultz, WSO Field Trips Co-Chair-