Fall Flocks Peak at Necedah

By Dennis McCann

Early one dark, autumn morning some years back, a visitor made his way to the observation deck at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge. He’d come to watch two volunteer counters assess the population of Sandhill cranes massing on refuge marshes in advance of the fall migration. It seemed a daunting task to count so many cranes, but it actually was as simple as one-two-three.

“One,” said a counter as the first crane soared high in search of favorable winds, then “two, three” as small clusters followed. And so they watched and tabulated, necks – well, what else – craned skyward until the last of 3,000 Sandhills had left the marsh in search of food to convert to energy for the long trip to come. It was a dazzling, and memorable display.

A refuge, like a parent, should not openly play favorites; winter is as important to resident species at the 44,000-acre refuge as spring and fall are to migrant flocks. For many two-legged visitors, though, there is no question when the Necedah Wildlife Refuge is at its vibrant best. The staff agrees that the fall is the peak season.

In any season, the refuge in west central Wisconsin that includes the largest wetland bog in the state as well as extensive forest habitat and rare oak savannas, is a special place. With a little luck and a good pair of binoculars, the refuge’s estimated 150,000 annual visitors have an opportunity to observe hundreds of bird species including Sandhill cranes, eagles, herons, osprey and other shorebirds, along with occasional glimpses of white-tailed deer, beaver, coyotes and even gray wolves. The refuge is also home to the endangered Karner blue butterfly and Blanding’s turtle.

In recent years, many visitors have arrived in hopes of sighting endangered Whooping cranes nesting at the refuge, especially during training to teach the birds to follow ultralight aircraft on their migration from Necedah to Florida each fall. Anyone who shows up to see one shouldn't have any trouble spotting one of the rare birds. 

Wildlife can be viewed on foot from a number of trails in the refuge, but viewing is also popular along the Wildlife Viewing “Hot Spots” auto tour, which features various stopping points along an 11-mile route. Tour guides and observation towers help new visitors find the best wildlife spotting opportunities.

Content produced in cooperation with Wisconsin Trails magazine.