A Hike at Horicon; Perhaps, a Whooping Crane Sighting

Here we are in the 4th quarter of a year that, for me personally, has included very little hiking – a complete failure of a resolution I made in January when the year was so new. I thought then, I would participate in the American Hiking Society’s Hike 40 challenge for 2016 (in celebration of AHS’ 40th anniversary). It sounded like an easy challenge to meet but it’s not if you don’t get out there on a trail regularly.

Recently though, I’ve found some time to just go hike – without regard to any particular challenge. Using a favorite hiking guide – John and Ellen Morgan’s 50 Hikes in Wisconsin (The Countryman Press, Second Edition), I chose to end October with a hike that the Morgans describe at Wisconsin’s wonderful Horicon Marsh.

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This amazing 33,000 acre wetland an hour northwest of Milwaukee offers so much for so many creatures – both the wildlife, and humankind. In this blog post, I’ll describe the marsh, and then our hike. Near the end, I hope you won’t miss my conversation with Erin Railsback, who is on the staff for Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, about current conditions at the marsh..

The Horicon Marsh is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the U. S.  It is the largest cattail marsh here in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Since 1990, Horicon Marsh has made the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance. It is a mecca for wildlife, including over 300 species of birds. To those of us in Wisconsin, Horicon is probably best known as a major staging area (a known location where migrating birds gather to rest and feed), in particular for Canada geese, mallards, and sandhill cranes.

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Horicon is both a State Wildlife Area (the lower one-third of the marsh is owned and managed by the WI Department of Natural Resources) and a National Wildlife Refuge (the northern two-thirds, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,  was established as Horicon NWR in 1941). Between them, these entities provide recreational opportunities for human visitors that include fishing, hunting, trapping, canoeing, hiking, biking, birding, and observation blinds for wildlife viewing and photography. If you just want to enjoy the great outdoors, you can find a way to do it at Horicon.

Hiking there was an easy choice for both me and my spouse because it’s a Wisconsin resource we both believe we know a lot about in a superficial way, but have little real-life experience of it. This would be the perfect time, we thought – a calm, mostly-sunny, late fall day – to get to know it better. (And it was.)

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Plus, for me, there was the knowledge that at least a few of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes are often seen there. I had this vivid picture – a wish, really – in my imagination: that we might walk by a field on our hike, or even drive by one in the area, in which a whooping crane or two would be foraging – their large white shapes, distant, but unmistakable; against a green background. (More about that, below.)

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The Morgans advise that the 3.4 mile hike on the Redhead, Red Fox, and Egret Trails is rated a “2” out of 5 for difficulty, with just slight, occasional hints of vertical rise. “After climbing a short hill along a wide, crushed limestone trail, you will reach the crest to find one of many great views along this trail,” they write,    . . . The view stretches in every direction.” We felt that was just as described, but we also noted throughout the afternoon that there were fewer birds – some ducks and other waterfowl, but not to the degree that we thought Horicon was known for in the fall. Still, it was the last Sunday in October, and our first thought was that we were too late for the peak of migration. Or maybe, because it’s been an unusually warm season, it hadn’t happened yet? Indeed, I later learned that is exactly the case this year.

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“Pleasant,” is the word I’d use to describe, everything about the day, and certainly all the views to come along the Horicon trails. The Egret Trail, portion of our hike, did not afford full access to the floating boardwalk that extends out into part of the Marsh – sections of the boardwalk are undergoing reconstruction, and another visit to the finished hiking trail over water would definitely be worthwhile. After hiking the three trails, we felt a new familiarity with Horicon Marsh, but a quick look at this Visitor Map reminded me how vast the entire Marsh is, and how much more there will be to explore another time.

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Best of all, though was this experience:  returning from the Egret Trail, an expanse of field opened up to our right – we were somewhat above it and suddenly I thought I just might be looking at the tall white shape I had so hoped to see! Actually, it was more like looking at the head of a white shape, and not against that green background of my imagination but in the tall dry grasses of the fall.

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We halted right there, watching for a while as that bird came in and out of our view, and trying to focus an old, untrustworthy pair of binoculars on its movements. (Reminder to self:  Don’t go into the field looking for birds – even very large ones – without good optical equipment.)

This bird was far away, but not so far, as to be just a mere speck of white. We could clearly make out the shape of a head, and at times, the long curving neck. With a spotting scope we likely would have seen the red-patch on the top of this bird’s head, if in fact it was a whooper. “Maybe it’s an egret?” suggested my hiking partner.  But just then, the bird raised “his” head to call, as whooping cranes do – this is something we could see really well with our not-great binoculars, and clearly hear with our own ears.  And that settled it for me.

Later in the week, when I caught up with Erin Railsback, who is the Visitor Services Coordinator for the refuge, I received confirmation, that “Yes,” there has definitely been a single male whooper observed on the refuge recently. She said that the bird has been consistently observed in the general area where we believed we saw, and heard him. She told me that between staff at the International Crane Foundation and biologists of the refuge, his whereabout were usually known.

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As for my question about the peak of migration – had we missed it? – not at all!  “This is a very unusual year,” Erin reminded me. Like everyone in Wisconsin, I’ve been aware we’re having a mild fall, but I haven’t been keeping track of just how mild.  “When we have a day that’s over 70 degrees in November, that is unusual,” Erin stressed; she added that, “We have a pretty good number of ducks here now, but not the geese at all.”

It was not so warm, the day of our hike, but during the week that followed, temperatures had climbed, and more warm days were still expected. So if you are someone who would be interested in this annual phenomenon of many thousands of Canada geese and sandhill cranes migrating through Horicon, stay tuned; it is still to come this year. As far as just ‘when,’ Erin said, as long as the geese and the cranes can find food and their summer habitat continues to meet their needs, they will stay there.  It’s not just dropping temperatures, she said, that cause them to migrate, but the shorter days too, and soon,  the migration will be here, she predicted;  watch for more fall-like conditions, and stay tuned. I would just add that the home page of the Horicon NWR gives a Fall Migration update. I’ll be checking that.

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