HORICON — Steady rain and wind did little Friday to temper the enthusiasm of sisters Judy and Sue Long.
There were pelicans to see in the distant pools and closer by, goslings under the watchful eye of a parent.
For the Weyauwega women, who married brothers, there will be more birds to add to their life lists Saturday as they will be among the spotting scope crowd expected for day two of the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, which continues through Sunday in and around the 32,000-acre swamp, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country.
"They look like they're almost doing a dance," said Sue Long, 63, of the flocks of white pelicans that nest in the marsh. "They go up and around and then down. A lot of people don't realize how much stuff is here."
Up to 1,000 birdwatchers, some novices, others world travelers, could take part in the three-day event sponsored by the Horicon Marsh Bird Club. Events include bus and boat tours, hikes, a photo contest, seminars and bird banding demonstrations.
One of the highlights includes the Big Sit, a 14-hour bird watching marathon in which birdwatchers try to observe as many species as possible from a 17-foot circle beginning at 4 a.m. Sunday at the Department of Natural Resources field office in Horicon on the southern edge of the marsh. Over the past four years, an average of 79 species have been observed from the spot and 112 species overall.
Sunday's weather is forecast to be more tolerable than Friday's, when rain jackets, fleece, boots and stocking caps were necessary.
"The birds are here but it just doesn't make the viewing as nice," said Jeff Bahls, president of the bird club. He was with a group Friday along Highway 49 on the marsh's northern reaches, and they were using their school bus to shield the wind while peering through binoculars and high-powered spotting scopes.
Kim Ainis, a teacher from Chicago, boarded the bus at 6 a.m. with other bird lovers and was making her fifth trip to the marsh. In just over six hours, she had spotted more than 100 species, including a Wilson's phalarope and a rarely seen glossy ibis.
"That was exciting," said Ainis, who in the past has used a kayak to explore the marsh, which ranges from just six inches to three feet deep in most places. "It's nice to have this big, huge expanse."
But a bus or boat isn't required. The marsh offers several opportunities for those who want to venture out on their own, including a three-mile loop east of Waupun. It includes pullouts and a floating board walk that lets visitors get even closer to white pelicans, tree swallows, Forster's terns, egrets and pied-billed grebe.
The Long sisters were at the 1-year-old Horicon Marsh International Education Center, which provides information about the marsh, along with scenic views and an art gallery featuring the detailed wildlife paintings of Beaver Dam artist Frank Mittlestadt. The facility also houses the office of Bill Volkert, who is recognized nationally and internationally as an advocate for wetlands. A natural resources educator for the DNR, Volkert recently was honored nationally by the Environmental Law Institute. He has trained 66 delegations of scientists from 44 countries and has worked on watershed management symposiums held in Siberia and Mongolia. But he still has concerns for the marsh outside his office door.
At one time, Horicon Marsh was drained and used for agriculture but beginning in the late 1920s, efforts to restore the marsh began. In 1991, it was named "A Wetland of International Importance." Pressures on its health remain.
"The marsh is completely different from 100 years ago with this cattail dominance," Volkert said. "It's not a bad thing, cattail is important but we also have now, because of the land uses in the watershed, very high sediment nutrient inputs, which means cattails do even better. It's becoming more and more dense so we're losing open water components."