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Badger Birding

Meet Lake Mendota’s winged visitors     

Matt Rogge
May 12, 2015

Lake Mendota is a big reason why UW-Madison is one of the most beautiful campuses in America. It’s also the reason why the campus is one of the best places in the state to see migrating birds, particularly waterfowl.

During the course of the spring and fall migrations, the observant birdwatcher will find all manner of songbirds resting in the woodlands along the Lakeshore Path. This long stretch of forest provides birds with a quiet oasis amid the clamor of the city. Sparrows, wrens, finches, warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, hawks, owls, and even wild turkeys can be observed.

But, for many bird enthusiasts, waterfowl are the real highlight of the two annual migrations. At 9,700 acres, Mendota is one of the state’s largest lakes, and its fertile waters attract thousands of water-loving birds. From the windows of WAA’s lakeside office this spring, staff caught sight of buffleheads, hooded mergansers, mud hens, pied-billed grebes, bluebills, common loons, and the ubiquitous mallard.

Looking to the skies, WAA staff observed bald eagles and — on one cold, clear afternoon in March — a flock of seven white pelicans soaring like kites above the campus. But the highlight of this year’s spring migration was a group of three horned grebes, diving for fish in the cold waves just off the end of Lake Street. A rare sight, the trio stayed for just a few hours before winging it north to their summer nesting grounds.

The fall migration is much more dramatic. Many of the birds observed on campus in the spring are present again in the fall, as are huge flocks of diving ducks. Great rafts of the elusive canvasback duck can be seen far out in the lake. Flocks of coot shift closer to shore, dragging their feet in the water as they fly between feeding areas.

Fall is also the season for seeing tundra swans on Lake Mendota. The smallest of North America’s swans, the tundra swan comes to Madison from the Arctic Circle. The great birds feed in the shallow waters along the lake’s southern shore. The swans roost in great rafts at night, huddling together and singing a haunting song (thus their nickname: whistling swan). These birds can be seen from the UW’s shoreline until the lake freezes over.

For the birdwatcher with a little knowledge, a pair of binoculars, and a good vantage point, birding at the UW can be quite rewarding. Avian arrivals and departures take place throughout the spring and fall, and every day brings some new visitor. Don’t miss the show.

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