The wetland was getting wet, and so were we. Yet the cold October rain didn't dampen our tour group’s excitement as we boarded the pontoon boat. We were about to enter birder’s paradise, otherwise known as Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Mayville, Wisconsin. Encompassing more than 32,000 acres, Horicon is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States and home—or rest stop—to more than 300 species of birds.
As we, a couple dozen Society of Environmental Journalists conference attendees, cruised down the Rock River into the heart of the marsh, all eyes cast upon the willow and pine trees lining both shores. What birds would we see? It was peak migratory season, and we were positioned within a popular migration path of ducks and Canada geese, as well as some endangered species.
The marsh didn’t disappoint. We soon began to hear bird songs above the hum of the boat’s motor and the pitter-patter of the rain: swallows, geese, a blue jay, and a red-winged blackbird. Through the wet air we even spotted a blue heron on the water and a beaver dam. It was easy to see that a wetland really is a hotspot for wildlife, and that this one in particular deserved its designation by the Ramsar Convention of the United Nations as a “Wetland of International Importance."
As Bill Volkert, a naturalist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, had explained to us back at the Visitor’s Center, the marsh's rich soil, covered by shallow water, is good for a variety of plants. “Where there are cattails, there are animals,” he said. “And birds are the most conspicuous.”
But the marsh and its residents are facing a plethora of problems these days, from invasive carp and run-off from nearby farms to cross-cutting Highway 49 (known as "Hood ornament 49" for the abundance of road kill it claims) and the 86 new wind turbines that now pop up from neighboring corn fields. (The number of 1.5-megawatt turbines is expected to reach up to 133—contingent on the outcome of a study investigating their effects on birds and bats.)
Volkert notes that more than half a million Canada geese continue to migrate through the refuge. But this isn't necessarily evidence that the habitat is healthy: “If Canada geese can survive in Chicago, what do we need to do to eliminate them from here?” More telling, he believes, is what the development means for resident birds, like the wood duck, that live here year-round.
The damage began more than 150 years ago, Volkert explained. Since the retreat of an ice age glacier, one group of Native Americans after another lived off this land over the course of about 12,000 years, taking care not to change its delicate ecosystem. But beginning in the early 1840s, that all changed. European settlers arrived and began manipulating the marsh with dams, unregulated hunting, timber harvesting, even an effort to ditch and drain the marsh for agriculture. "In 25 years, ducks all but disappeared," said Volkert. As populations of game dwindled, it also became obvious that the soil was unsuitable for farming: the peat frequently erupted into flames. Restoration efforts began in the 1920s.
Volkert and other natural resource scientists are continuing this work today through a variety ofconservation and education programs. “Since we caused the problems, we need to solve them,” he said. They actively control carp and muskrat populations, limit the number of each species hunters are allowed to take, provide artificial nesting structures, manipulate water levels, and address pollution that Volkert says has turned the marsh into "a huge septic system." More flattering would be "carbon sink": The carbon dioxide storage potential of restored wetlands is estimated to be about six times greater than that of our forests, according to preliminary new research.
In addition to restoration efforts, Volkert and colleagues are also actively raising public awareness about the importance of wetlands for wildlife and human health. “Society is living more and more distant from nature,” said Volkert. Places like Horicon Wildlife Refuge, which boasts more than half a million visitors every year, help to bridge that gap, he said.
The skies cleared just in time for the second stop on our tour: a hike into the marsh along a zigzagging boardwalk. Journalists quickly lined the rails holding binoculars. I was content watching a family of ducks just a few feet off the walkway until I heard someone holler, "Look, a bald eagle!" In a tree, out across the pond, perched my favorite bird. We could now check one more off our list.
In the end, we identified 50 species—including a few we heard but didn’t actually see. We'll never know how many birds we would have counted had we visited the marsh in 1840. But we do know there may have been some birds we would have missed back then; some species, like the purple martin, actually depend on humans for nesting. More importantly, there would be far fewer flying through the wetland today if not for the work of dedicated conservationists.