Monday, August 13, 2018

1-3 Aug: Big trip part 4: Horicon Marsh!

Day 6, 7, and 8

Horicon Marsh - and especially its shorebird habitat - was the primary motivation for this whole trip. Now I was finally there - and it did not disappoint! I started birding on Highway 49, 6 miles from the campground. It's a shame that the highway runs right through prime shorebird habitat, but presumably drivers are used to birders standing on the shoulder (which is decently wide, and you can get well off the pavement onto gravel/grass), because there's usually someone there. 

I quickly added a bunch of FOGYs to my list with the first sweep of my scope: Black-necked Stilt (no scope needed for those!), Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Wilson's Phalarope put my green year list at 217. A little more searching turned up an American Black Duck (#218) - and the Red-necked Phalarope (#219) that had been around for a few days! The Red-necked was definitely a nice bird for the area, and she was still in lovely breeding plumage. The sky was overcast, which made for very good viewing conditions - no glare or backlight - but poor photos, so this is the best I got.

That's her in the back - identifiable, if barely, which is better than no photo!

I continued about a quarter mile down the road to another pond on the north side, which I scanned fairly quickly to add Semipalmated Sandpiper (#220) to the list. I was anxious to bird the rest of the refuge, and happy with my shorebird list, so I started back toward the auto tour. On the way, I noticed a new car scoping the area with the Red-necked Phalarope, so I stopped to ask the birder if he'd seen her. I didn't get his name then, but that birder turned out to be Tom Wood, who regularly birds Horicon, and he politely replied that he'd seen her several times this week already! I felt bad for bugging him. But then he asked if I'd seen the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. The what???!?!? Foolishly, I had not checked my birding emails the night before, so I had missed the report that a Buff-breasted was seen here yesterday. Tom described where the bird was - off to the side of the pool that I had just quickly scoped - so I headed back there. And there it was!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper for #221! (That blob at the back right is a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I'd already seen in La Crosse, but it was still fun to see many of them here.) I was so glad I'd stopped to talk to that birder. I had not expected to find either Red-necked Phalarope or Buff-breasted Sandpiper on this trip, so those were very nice bonus birds.

After that, I biked around half of the auto tour, enjoying Henslow's Sparrows, Bobolinks, and various other grassland and forest birds.

Juvenile Bobolink

Female Bobolink
Goofy molty male Bobolink
Seeing Bobolinks in La Crosse required a special trip up to a certain ridge - but here they were all over! Horicon Marsh really does have it all.

Then I biked down Old Marsh Road, a dike that is closed to cars but open to bikes. After the noisy, truck-filled highway, this road was wonderfully quiet and very birdy. Families of Common Gallinules, Marsh Wrens, and Black Terns abounded. 

And what are these goofy-looking birds?

They're young coots!

I also glimpsed a teenage Virginia Rail and no fewer than four Least Bitterns! Who ever sees four Least Bitterns in one day?? I'd heard them in La Crosse but had never before seen one in my life. Here they were just flying around the marsh in plain sight. But what I really needed was an American Bittern, which I did not yet have for my year list, despite many visits to a marsh where I had seen and heard them last year. It was past midday now and I thought about turning around several times, but I ended up biking the full length of Old Marsh Road in hopes of possibly coming across an American Bittern. All those Leasts and not a single American to be found. And then - just before the end of the road - an American Bittern (#223) flushed from the water next to the dike! (Two days later, I spoke with two birders on that road who were fruitlessly looking for a Least Bittern and had already seen four or five Americans!)

At that point, I could either retrace my tracks back to the auto tour, or make a big loop through the rest of the marsh. I also had the potential to ride even farther off that loop to the shorebird spot at the south end of the marsh. I decided to start on the big loop and see how I felt when I got to the point where I could continue for shorebirds. Well, I was quite tired by that point, and it was after 4pm, and I still had 15 miles or so to bike back to the campground, so I skipped the shorebird spot. Then the other dike that I took back across the marsh (Dike Road) turned out to be terrible for biking. The first half is maintained for cars and covered with large, sharp-edged chunks of gravel that make an awful substrate for bikes. The second half is closed to cars, but I discovered that it consists of two tire ruts along the dike, with the ruts sometimes too deep (and certainly too narrow) for my trailer. That ride wasn't much fun, and I was tired, and there were hardly any birds (much less FOGYs)! But if I hadn't done it, I always would have wondered what I might have seen if I had. I biked 45 miles that day (it was supposed to be an easy day!) and got back to camp around 7pm (that's late for me!) and I was exhausted!

The next two days, I went shorebirding in the morning (about 20 miles each day) and rested in the afternoon. On my second day at Horicon (Day 7 of the trip), I added Stilt Sandpiper (#224) and Baird's Sandpiper (#225) to my year list, and helped point out a Wilson's Phalarope to another birder (no sign of the Red-necked just then, but others saw her and the Buffy later that day). The next day (Day 8) I added an American Avocet (#226) on Highway 49, which was a nice surprise, and chatted with a few more birders on the side of the road.

I also tried some more digiscoping while the sun was out. I have yet to get a really nice photo with my digiscoping setup, but at least they're identifiable even when the bird is distant.

Semipalmated Sandpiper showing postbreeding molt
The other Semipalmated - this one a Plover
Least Sandpiper

Nearly-grown Killdeer chick
Then I headed back down Old Marsh Road, where another birder had spotted a couple of Black-bellied Plovers the day before. There were none in sight when I arrived at the mudflats, so I sat down to have lunch, browse through photos, and wait for as long as my patience held, knowing this would likely be my only chance to add this species to my year list. After about an hour, when it was getting really hot out in the sun, I heard one calling as it flew over! Their call is distinctive, and I'm well familiar with it (mainly from working several summers in the Arctic, where they breed)... but I hadn't glimpsed the bird at all, and it was very unsatisfying to have a heard-only shorebird. I took careful notes and listened to the call on my birding app to be absolutely certain that there was no room for doubt that that was what I'd heard. Then I looked back up... and there was a Black-bellied Plover (#226) in plain view on the concrete blocks that I'd been staking out!

Mission accomplished! After that, I felt rested, and was satisfied that I had maximized my time at Horicon, with 13 FOGYs and 40 trip birds. I was ready to pack up and leave the next day. 

We won't talk about all the additional species that have been reported from Horicon in the week since I left... including Wisconsin's FIRST EVER Sharp-tailed Sandpiper... *sigh*. Well, that's how it works with birding - there's always the one (or five) that you missed, so you'll just have to try to beat your own record next year!

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