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I stand awestruck in the early morning sunshine on the shoreline, humbled by the immensity and intensity of life on the largest freshwater cattail marsh in America.

It's hard to comprehend the sheer magnitude and breathtaking beauty of the 32,000 acre Horicon Marsh, a vital, nourishing respite that has welcomed millions of feathered travelers passing wearily along the Mississippi flyway.

The marsh is divided into two units, the northern two-thirds is a National Wildlife Refuge with limited access to protect nests, colonies, rookeries and migratory feeding areas.

The southern one-third is a Wisconsin State Natural Area accessible only by canoe, kayak or shallow draft boat and is protected in closed areas. This Pleistocene era extinct glacial lake is home to about 300 species of birds.

The great, rushed flurry of spring migration is over and the summer residents are either quietly nesting, raising precious families or raucously hanging out with the non-breeding bachelor flocks.

Horicon Marsh Horicon Marsh

This remarkable marsh is one of nine jewels on the necklace of Ice Age National Scientific Reserve Units strung across the state and is recognized globally as 'A Wetland of International Importance'.

Common Egret
Great Egret Ardea alba

Broad-leaved cattails wave blithely in the gentle breeze, yellow and white water lilies are bobbing their first blooms of summer on the surface. Distant bullfrogs resonate deep 'jug-o-rum' calls. I close my eyes and pause to breathe in the collective smells of the marsh.

A marsh wren's bold, strong song reminds me of the sound of an old fashioned Singer sewing machine. He's nearby, but doesn't show himself.  Black terns, swallows and chimney swifts swoop low and fast in heady mid-air turns, scooping up flying insects. Swifts silhouetted against the blue sky make them look like small flying 'fat cigars' with pointed narrow wings.


American white pelicans share their small island with double-crested cormorants preening wet feathers. The 2012 colonial nest survey counted 611 pelican nests and 600 cormorant nests.

Overhead, forty or fifty white pelicans slowly kettle upward with great outstretched wings tipped in inky black on rising warm air columns. With massive nine-foot wingspans they can be lazy about flapping their wings and glide across the miles and miles of marsh, effortlessly, to fish together in cooperative and coordinated gangs.

They literally herd fish into the shallows, on purpose, working together. All prosper from their individual united efforts. Marsh life is truely amazing.

In North America, the only land bird larger than the white pelican is the California condor.

White Pelicans and Cormorant
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Everywhere large rafts of assorted puddle, dabbling or diving ducks share deeper open water and shallow feeding areas with Canada geese, gadwalls and northern shovelers.

Redheads are not only handsome diving ducks, but a bit peculiar in the duck world and don't build their own nests. They commonly lay eggs in borrowed nests of other ducks and sometimes other bird species such as Northern Harriers and American Bittterns. Horicon Marsh hosts the largest population of redheads east of the Mississippi River.


The winding, floating boardwalk beckons birders into a small corner of the refuge for a closer peek into private bird lives and nesting sites. I take the bait and muscle my way through the pressing crowds on the 'birding trail' boardwalk.

Floating Boardwalk

'Excuse me, please, may I get through?' 'Pardon me.' 'Please excuse me.' 'Thank you.'  'May I slide past to take a picture of the duck, please?' Just kidding, there's no one here.

Today, there is a sweet aloneness here, a quiet internal stillness settles over and wells up from inside of me while listening to the wild mixed chorus of avian and amphibian morning song. I feel small and insignificant as the swishing, swaying cattails engulf me. For the moment I don't want to be anywhere else. If I shouted out my joy of being here, no one else would hear.


Four eggs...priceless. A belted kingfisher rattles a scolding chatter from a nearby drowned tree and dives with a splash of droplets for a silvery minnow.


Night predators devastated an island beachfront nursery, scattering the leathery ping pong ball sized turtle eggs in all directions.


Mallard hens raise their little ones alone, yet, I swear they always wear a Mona Lisa smile. And what's with her ducklings wearing the fancy eyeliner?

Mallard Family

The solitude and richness of the shifting shades of marsh color and shadow becomes like a watercolor on parchment.


An American coot makes a small wake as he paddles away toward open water uttering a series of clucks and squeaks. Great blue herons and rails are closer relatives to coots than are mallards and teals.

'Mud hens' aren't ducks?


To celebrate the vivid blueness of the marsh, I'll add some jewels from the marshland underbrush.




This fledgling robin looks out from his camouflage foliage and still sports baby tufts of head feathers. Mom chirps nearby, watching.

Fledgling Robin

Across the marsh, families are making their livings in the richness of the Horicon.


I'll return for the glory of the fall migration, when more than 200,000 geese and hundreds of thousands of summer raised families return to the south to winter.


Good birding to all and best wishes from Wisconsin.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Mon Jun 11, 2012 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Badger State Progressive, J Town, Birds and Birdwatching, DKOMA, Progressive Hippie, and Community Spotlight.

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