Wisconsin’s birdwatching community thrives after sunset

Lauryn Azu

Liz Herzmann observes Horicon Marsh through her binoculars as birds flock in the distance. Photography by Skylar Gdaniec

It’s 5 p.m. in Horicon, Wisconsin. We have one hour before sunset, and the sun hangs lazily to the west, shining down on a brisk fall day. A couple of retirees, a family of four, two bird experts and one reporter with her photographer in tow, gather on the edge of a hill to witness the majesty of birds in flight. 

After a long day of feeding off crops from nearby farms, the birds will return to the marsh to roost, where they are protected from predators before the sun dips below the horizon.

The beauty and drama of the endless skies at Horicon are what birdwatching aficionados travel for miles to see. And at dawn and near dusk is when the drama reaches its peak — when birds begin to take flight, feed, continue migration or rest after a long day’s travel.  

Over 300 species of birds have been identified in Horicon, America’s largest freshwater cattail marsh. Before settlers arrived it was the ancestral land of the Ho-Chunk and other tribes.

Beginning in the 1800s, the marsh was dammed, drained and dredged, and its fauna was exploited for commercial purposes. In the 1920s, conservationists advocated for the state to make the land a wildlife refuge to reverse the rampant destruction of years past.

Today, Horicon Marsh is divided between the federal government and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The marsh encompasses 33,000 acres and is an isle of wilderness amid civilization in south-central Wisconsin. 

According to Jeff Bahls, president of Horicon Marsh Birding Club, almost 80% of birds migrate at night, but migration happens year-round. In the fall, birds who summer north are heading back south. In the spring, it’s reversed. Because waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans migrate in fall and spring and inhabit the marsh’s wetlands, tonight’s watch is a guaranteed display of their V- and J-formations moving cohesively above. 

A birdwatcher takes notes based off the Crane Watch discussion led at the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center in his bullet journal. Photography by Skylar Gdaniec

A group gathers at Horicon Marsh an hour before sunset to watch sandhill cranes, Canada geese and other birds return to roost. Photography by Skylar Gdaniec

Night Chasers

Birders chase night skies for several reasons. A serious birder would stand to gain a different perspective of a favored bird in the dark. A novice would have the benefit of needing to learn fewer birds to make initial discoveries. 

Some birds, like owls, are nocturnal, meaning the greatest opportunity to see them active is at night. Others, like nightjars and American woodcocks, are crepuscular and are most active during twilight. 

A few elements distinguish the night birder from their daytime counterpart. A healthy sense of adrenaline, for starters. A keen sense of sound, so you can listen to know whose neighborhood you’re in, and direction, so you don’t find yourself wandering in circles. It doesn’t hurt to nail your bird calls either — Brian McCaffrey, a longtime birder based in Bayfield County in northwestern Wisconsin, can nail the call of the American woodcock. For some birders, it helps to hear a friendly voice call back to you in the darkness. 

About five minutes into our watch at the Horicon Marsh, a red-tailed hawk soars overhead, meeting up with another hawk. We began our watch seated neatly at picnic tables, but now everyone is on their feet and out from underneath the shelter to get a good view of the commotion. The crowd collectively gasps when the hawks get aggressive, hovering around each other, and a battle ensues. 

Down below, a gale streams through long grasses on the knoll we’re standing on, which makes our birdwatching leaders raise their voices a few notches. 

When McCaffrey goes out at night, he’s looking for times when the wind is low. Night birders need their ears to tell who they’re looking at in poor visibility. 

“I go on AccuWeather and see if it’s like … five, six miles an hour. That’s usually suitable for hearing,” he says. 

In Horicon, wind speeds hovered around six miles per hour that night, but as we’re huddled on the side of the hill, the gales feel stronger.

After 15 minutes, we get our first gull sighting: one returning to roost, perhaps after dining in a landfill in Mayville less than 10 miles away from here, says Liz Herzmann, a wildlife educator for the Horicon Marsh Visitor and Education Center who is leading tonight’s discussion with Bahls. 

“We’ve had some nights where this whole area up here is just white with gulls, just hundreds and hundreds of them,” Herzmann says.

Not So Scared of the Dark

Here on the state-owned side of Horicon Marsh, hunting and trapping are permitted. Around a half-hour into the watch, the sound of gunshots in the distance reminds those of us on the hill that we’re not the only ones here, nor is birdwatching the sole objective of human activity on these lands.

Birders can’t be naive about the dangers at night that accompany the beauty they’re seeking. Sometimes the wildlife they’re looking for can pose its own kind of threat. 

“I was once strafed by a saw-whet owl in the twilight just before dawn,” McCaffrey says. “I’d  been calling it, and it had been calling back. And then, I wasn’t quite sure where it was, and suddenly, out of my peripheral vision I saw it coming right at my head across the top of my car and I ducked, and on my recording, you can hear my shuffling as I’m ducking from this little teeny owl that was going for my head.” 

When McCaffrey is out night birding in Bayfield County, he’s more often than not looking for owls. He drives to and from where he’s birding because  he knows what he’s looking for, so he can go straight to where he’s sure to find it without the risk of getting lost in the woods at 1 or 2 a.m. 

“I’m more comfortable doing it up here than I would in a more populated area,” McCaffrey says. “Because really, my greatest concern is encounters with people on these back roads where it’s not many people doing what I’m doing, so it’s like, what are they doing back here?” 

For birders in more urban settings, risk is a certain reality of birding at night. Madison birder Jeff Galligan, who’s seen over 300 bird species in Wisconsin over the years, describes himself as “very careful” during his night outings as a Black man. 

Galligan says he’s attuned to his surroundings and where he’s pointing his camera and binoculars when he’s birding at night because people, like police, can make assumptions. 

He and Dexter Patterson co-founded BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin this year precisely for this reason, as its goal is to get more people of color involved in the predominantly white world of birding and feel comfortable exploring Wisconsin’s outdoors. He’s excited about its potential to expose Madison youth of color to different perspectives and opportunities. 

“Environmentalism and stewardship and having a vested interest in things like reducing the carbon footprint, being aware of global warming…is something I want people of color to be seeing and experiencing more because we all are here and our children are all going to be inheriting the same earth,” Galligan says. 

Back at Horicon, two sandhill cranes, the night’s main attraction, fly about 15 feet from the top of the picnic shelter and give their strangled honk to jolt me back into the moment. 

River of Birds

After 40 minutes a flock of mallards loops around the picnic shelter, and one of robins follows soon after. Of all the waterfowl, wood ducks are the last to roost tonight. 

“If you get a good night you’ll see this river, of waterfowl, or cranes or whatever, going from one spot to the other because they’re just kind of following one another,” Bahls says. 

It’s 5:50 p.m. now, and as the sun sinks in the sky, the Rock River glistens in the distance. Still, Bahls and Herzmann don’t miss a beat at identifying birds for the thinning crowd. Off in the distance is a sedge of sandhill cranes, Herzmann says. 

“A lot of it is just training your eye in silhouettes, is how I look at it, so every bird has a different shape and flight. … They have different wing beats,” she says. Bahls can name birds at the drop of a hat because he’s been birding in Dodge County his entire life. 

The orange band of the sunset thins away, until night envelopes the marsh completely. Herzmann and Bahls fold up the scopes they carried in.

It’s 6:24 p.m., the sunset was 15 minutes ago and just a few of us are left. I hear the gurgling motor of a duck hunter and his dog in his airboat first, and then see the flashing green light that guides him through the winding Rock River. 

As a writer, I chose Horicon because I wanted to see birds in all their glory, and what brings people to them. But what I found instead was how nature brings out the best in us. Sure,“…it’s pretty fun to at least be aware that a huge number of birds can be flying over you at night at this time of year,” says Madison Audubon director of education Carolyn Byers. But more than that, birders find it empowering to develop a lifelong connection with the natural world, to make new discoveries in familiar places, and see a side of creation while the world is sleeping. 

I start up my car and drive into the engulfing darkness guided solely by headlights, thinking about the creatures we left behind. 

The sun sets in Horicon, Wisconsin, a popular destination for birdwatchers due to the variety of species that inhabit the area. Photography by Skylar Gdaniec

While birdwatching in the dark gives individuals the unique opportunity to see birds migrating, birdwatchers also have to be extra careful when exploring at night. Photography by Skylar Gdaniec

DUSK page photo credit: Madison birdwatcher Pat Ready looks up toward the sky, binoculars ready in hand to magnify the birds above. Photography by Kalli Anderson