Onalaska and Rusk County are two of Wisconsin’s best birding hotspots
MADISON, Wis. -– For avid birdwatchers, fall is the perfect time to pack up the binoculars and hiking boots, hop in the car and head out on an adventure. Fortunately, Wisconsin happens to be home to two of the finest places to bird in the Midwest: the Onalaska area and Rusk County.
Situated along an aerial highway for millions of North American birds, Onalaska’s location on the Upper Mississippi River flyway makes it a birdwatcher’s paradise. Every fall, puddle ducks, diving ducks, geese, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds – nearly 300 species in total – follow the route of the Mississippi on their annual migration.
Just a few minutes north of Onalaska is the Holmen Van Loon Wildlife Area. Nearly 4,000 acres of woods, meadows and wetlands provide the ideal habitat for a wide variety of birds, including yellow-crowned night herons, Acadian flycatchers and several species of warblers. In the fall, thousands of birds migrate through Van Loon, so be sure to bring along your camera and a good pair of binoculars.
A little farther north yet is the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. At more than 6,000 acres, this isolated backwater of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers is a serene resting and feeding spot for the area’s waterfowl. Explore the 4.5-mile self-guided Prairie’s Edge Tour Loop on foot or stay in your car and hop out at the observation decks. You never know what amazing wildlife you might see through the high-powered spotting scopes! Fall is famous for bringing tundra swans and during the peak migration in October, so expect to see hundreds of thousands of canvasbacks, shovelers and coots gathering in the Trempealeau Refuge.
For an especially unique birdwatching experience, bike the Great River Trail, which connects Onalaska and the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. The trail is an important migratory bird route filled with edge habitats, so bikers who birdwatch along this trail won’t be disappointed.
In northwestern Wisconsin, Rusk County’s wilderness areas, trails and wild rivers promise endless birdwatching opportunities. Pileated woodpeckers, bald eagles, osprey, common loons, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, kingfishers, warblers and hummingbirds are just a few of the species you’ll have a chance to see in the woodlands and wetlands of Rusk County.
The Blue Hills, in northwestern Rusk County, are one of the state’s best kept secrets for birdwatching. Twenty-three miles of trails gives birders ample opportunity to sneak a peek at the many waterfowl and migratory birds that call the hills home. Be prepared to see red-shouldered Hawks, whip-poor-wills, golden-winged warblers and Louisiana waterthrush along these quiet trails.
Just south of Ladysmith in Rusk County is the Flambeau Mine Trail. Once the site of a copper and gold mine, the area has since been reclaimed and is now home to four miles of easy trails. Birders will encounter plenty of meadowlarks, warblers, blue herons and marsh wrens as they stroll through grassland, woodland and wetland areas.
Binoculars and birding guidebooks are available for checkout at the Rusk County Visitors Center in Ladysmith.