by Robin Maercklein
Watching birds on the Gandy Dancer can be enjoyable while hiking, biking or cross-country skiing. Numerous birds can be found if you look for them. The key to finding them is three-fold, the most obvious being using your eyes and ears. However, most important may be habitat. Many bird species are adapted to specific habitats while others are more generalists and are found in several habitats. I hope this guide helps you find birds while enjoying your time on the Gandy Dancer State Trail.
The information below is specific to different sections of the Gandy Dancer.
LUCK and FREDERIC (260th Avenue in Luck, north to Frederic).
Best Birds: During Spring and Summer, look for Bobolink just southeast of Café Wren’s parking lot. Three quarters mile north of 260th Ave check the Reed Canary-Grass wetlands for Sandhill Crane, Wilson’s Snipe, American Woodcock, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sedge Wren, Brown Thrasher, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Common Yellowthroat. Search in woodlands of Quaking Aspen, Sugar Maple/White and Red Oak for Great Horned Owl, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, American Robin, Veery, Wood Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, warblers including American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. Check out the agricultural grasslands for sparrows and blackbirds.
A variety of habitats are found on this section of the trail. They include forests of Quaking Aspen, Sugar Maple, and mixed hardwoods (Sugar Maple, Basswood, Paper Birch, Bur Oak, Green and White ash, and White Oak). Some large wetlands are present including willow shrub and Reed Canary-Grass dominated marshland. There are also agricultural areas including old fields, non-native grasslands, and croplands.
The eight most common species, in descending order, include American Robin, Song Sparrow, Barn Swallow (they nest at Café Wren), European Starling, House Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, American Crow, and Red-winged Blackbird. These are species that are hard to miss.
Song Sparrows are generalist and nest in shrubby areas or edges between forests and open areas which describes much of the habitat along the trail. During breeding season, they are often seen singing their hearts out from the top of a shrub, fence post, or other sturdy plant. Robins forage on the ground in open areas and are loudly vocal, proclaiming their territory, hence being at the top of the list. Others, including House Sparrow and starling nest in buildings in exposed cavities or nest boxes.
Moving down the list, the less common species include some that are often hard to see but more likely to be heard. In forests, listen for the thin plaintive whistled call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. Its “pee-a-wee” or “pee-whee-oh” is distinctive and once you have learned it you will hear it often, again during breeding season. Like other flycatchers, this species flies out from a perch to snag flying insects, often returning to the same perch. They can sometimes be hard to find as they can sit still for long periods waiting for another passing insect.
There are also some less common species, often restricted by their preferred habitat. One example is Red-shouldered Hawk. This is a state-listed species and usually nests around large ponds or streams surrounded by forest. Look for them circling above the trees calling out their repeating “keyaurr, keyaurr”.
Adjacent to any wetland In April, you might find a male American Woodcock ‘peenting’, or calling to attract a mate. After a short period of slowly turning in a circle and calling out its nasal ‘peent’ every few seconds, it takes off, flying in ascending circles over its territory, spiraling upward until it changes course, dropping like a diving roller-coaster with distinctive short whistles created by wind passing through its tail feathers during each dive.
Whether you are biking or walking on the Gandy Dancer, you will probably notice at least one bird. This is one of my favorite sections, partly because it departs from the highway providing a quieter, more peaceful experience. You may be more likely to hear birds calling here. This section has been surveyed by others as well. These surveys document at least 61 species on just nine visits between mid-April and early July.
The Luck to Frederic section of the Gandy Dancer State Trail is designated as an eBird Hotspot (260th Avenue to County Highway W). Developed by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, eBird is the world’s largest ‘citizen science’ wildlife database and is used by bird watchers of all levels. You can explore this Hotspot online at: https://ebird.org/wi/hotspot/L14203259
This is a new Hotspot (May, 2021) with few checklists but anyone can submit observations to this site. The resulting database will be more detailed and useful as more people submit checklists. What did you see on your latest visit here?
CENTURIA (160th Ave to 190th St./ Cty I).
Most people would expect to find fewer birds on the Gandy Dancer Trail within a village such as Centuria, but you might be surprised. Four surveys to document breeding activity were conducted between April 9 and July 29, in 2016 and 2017. Forty-eight species were found including a few city dwellers not often observed far from human habitation. Rock Pigeon, Chimney Swift, Eastern Phoebe, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, European Starling, and House Sparrow were all found the trail within the developed portion of the village. A Gray Catbird was found nesting alongside a concrete block wall while the American Robin is a familiar sight on manicured lawns.
Good, natural habitat for birds is found along the trail within village limits. During June and July between County Hwy I and Centuria Village Park, look and listen for woodland warblers – American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, and Yellow Warbler; sparrows in open areas – Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Song Sparrow; and others in mixed habitats – Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and; Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Great Crested Flycatcher.
Another stretch of bird habitat is found southward between 160th Ave and 165th Ave. Listen for Indigo Bunting near the intersection with 165th Ave.
Watch for migrants in Spring and Fall when Fox Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos as well as a larger variety of warblers are most likely to be seen.
Winter birds can be found here as well with 21 species found on a survey in mid December, 2010. Regularly found species at nearby feeders should include woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and cardinals. The trail offers natural cover and shelter for these birds when they are not foraging. Also look for finches such as American Goldfinch and House Finch. The latter is always associated with humans. Other finches, especially Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins do not always come this far south in winter but good years can bring large flocks to feeders and weedy fields along the trail. Check out those fields for Ring-necked Pheasants as well!
WOOD RIVER to LEWIS.
Portions of the Gandy Dancer Trail in Polk County were surveyed for birds between 2015 and 2019 as part of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II – an attempt to document birds breeding throughout Wisconsin. The trail was surveyed nine times between mid-May and mid-July in 2018 stretching from one quarter mile southwest of the Wood River to Lewis. The trail and adjacent State Highway 35 cut through a mostly forested area favorable to the 57 species of birds found here. Indeed, the forest is so dense that the Wood River is invisible from the trail!
Birds observed here include two Wisconsin Special Concern species: Dickcissel, found at edges of agricultural areas, and Golden-winged Warbler, both of which were documented to exhibit breeding activity.
Other forest loving birds frequently observed in this stretch include Downy, Hairy, and Pileated woodpeckers, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, House Wren, Black-capped Chickadee, Gray Catbird, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and nine(!) species of warbler: Ovenbird, Golden-winged Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Pine Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Yellow Warbler.
Despite the closeness of Hwy 35 and ongoing pavement operations, I found this portion to provide a productive area for bird watching and a relatively quiet hike.