By: Festival Committee
Larry Michael, Gayl Zuelsdorf, Jeff Bahls, Jack and Holly Bartholmai, Vicki Hollenberg, Brad Webb, Cathy Ley, Liz Herzmann
Larry Michael founded the Horicon Marsh Bird Club in 1994, to share his love of birding Horicon Marsh with others. Over the next couple of years, Larry took several birding trips and attended birding events in various locations. This gave him an idea. He approached Bill Volkert at the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area and brought up the idea of having a major birding festival highlighting Horicon Marsh. Bill quickly realized what this could become. Then Larry approached Gayl Zuelsdorf of Horicon Marsh Boat Tours. Gayl recalls the moment, “I remember when Larry stopped and said he had an idea – something he had read about that was taking place in other areas called a bird festival. I needed to find a chair to sit down because everything in my body told me that he was onto something, and it was going to be great.”
Larry worked hard with the Horicon Marsh Bird Club, Bill Volkert of the WI DNR, Gayl Zuelsdorf of Horicon Marsh Boat Tours and Molly Stoddard of the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge to create the first festival. Horicon Marsh was well known as a stopover for the fall migration of 100,000-200,000 Canada Geese. Larry, however, wanted to show Horicon Marsh was just as important to other species of birds during the spring migration. That is how Mother’s Day weekend was chosen for the festival date. This time period marks International Migratory Bird Day and is during the height of the spring migration.
The first festival was run on a shoestring budget with only a few trip leaders and kicked off with the release of Trumpeter Swans on the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge at 8 a.m. on Friday May 8, 1998. The big event was to be a special ceremony with Governor Tommy Thompson releasing one of four Trumpeters that morning from the plastic crate it was in. As a huge crowd watched, this swan didn’t take the few steps forward to get into the pond in front of it like the swans that had been released previously. It stretched its neck up, looked the governor in the eyes, flapped its wings, honked loudly, made a fast right turn, ran across the road and disappeared into the sheltered cattail pool. Later that day, four more pairs of Trumpeter Swans were released on the State Wildlife section of the marsh.
The estimated attendance for the release of the swans and the first festival was 3,000. Larry was surprised how many people and families showed up to participate in the festival. The response of the participants was overwhelmingly positive. People weren’t the only ones making an appearance at the festival. There were 119 species of birds spotted. These included the rare visit of a Common Loon, Black Bellied Whistling Duck and Sharp Shinned Hawk.
The bird festival was a resounding success. There would be plans for another festival the next year. This was the start of something very big! Since the first festival in 1998, thousands of birders from as many as 17 states, Japan, Tanzania, Germany and a few other countries have attended the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival. Typically about 150-160 bird species are spotted during the 4 days of the festival. Over the past 14 years, a total of 229 species have been identified during the festival, with a record of 167 species seen during the 2009 festival.
It is now 2012, and we are celebrating our 15th year of the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival. The festival has grown in size and events over the years. Those who work the festival love Horicon Marsh and enjoy sharing this fantastic location with visitors. Grab your binoculars and cameras and make plans to head out to the festival. It doesn’t matter if you live just down the road or across the country; the Horicon Marsh is truly a gem of a location. You never know who or what you will see.
This year will mark the 15th Annual Horicon Marsh Bird Festival. It will be held from Friday May 11 through Monday May 14. To find out what is being offered at this year’s Horicon Marsh Bird Festival and to book one of the many tours, check the festival website at www.horiconmarshbirdfestival.com.
“The birds will be here – Will you?”