By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 26, 2002 at 6:00 AM

There may be no better place in Wisconsin to watch birds than the Horicon Marsh, a 32,000-acre wetland about an hour's drive northwest of Milwaukee.

Although it's most famous for the Canada Geese that stop there during their fall migration, the marsh -- the largest cattail marsh in the country -- also boasts more than 260 kinds of birds that call Horicon home.

It is for this reason that the marsh is designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a Wetland of International Importance. Horicon is also a national wildlife refuge and a state wildlife area.

In the 19th century, Horicon Marsh underwent massive changes: the town of Horicon was built, a dam was constructed, creating a vast lake, and then later demolished. Market hunters began exploiting the marsh and killing off the duck population.

Others tried to dredge and drain the marsh and by the early years of the 20th century, Horicon Marsh was destroyed; of little value to man or beast. The resulting habitat destruction decimated much of the wildlife, including its birds, frogs and muskrats. Much of the exposed dry peat often caught fire and portions of the marsh were aflame, on and off, for more than a decade.

In the 1920s conservationists began to turn their attention to Horicon Marsh helping to get the Wisconsin legislature to pass the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge Bill in 1927, which allowed for land acquisition and the building of a dam to return the water to its original level. Over the next 20 years more land was purchased to complete the restoration effort and establish a National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, we can see the results of that hard work as we drive along the roads that trace the 13.5-mile-long by 5.5-mile-wide wetland.

There were just a few geese passing through in the 1940s, but that has increased over the years with more than 50,000 by the end of the 1950s and more than 200,000 within the following two decades.

The geese begin arriving in the area from Hudson Bay, where they spend the summer, in mid-September and can be seen from most anywhere in the area. They usually remain in the area over the course of the next couple months.

There are some hiking trails in the marsh or you can bike the Wild Goose State Trail, which covers 34 miles along an abandoned railroad right of way. If you're tied to your car, take the Wild Goose Parkway, which begins just west of Horicon on Cty. E. There are signs that will lead you along the 36-mile road that circles the entire marsh.

For optimum viewing, head over to the observation area in the National Wildlife Refuge, near Hwy. 49 and Cty. Z. A spectacular view of the marsh can be had from the observation deck at the DNR Field Office on North Palmatory Street in the City of Horicon. Public naturalist programs are offered at this site from mid-September to the end of October.

Other birds you may spot while you're at the marsh include warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other songbirds and vireos. By October, you can still find many of the marsh's summer birds, including herons, egrets, cormorants as well as migrant Canada geese, ducks and other marsh birds. If you can bear the chilly winds of November and December you may be rewarded with views of rough-legged hawks, tundra swans, short-eared owls, bald eagles, white finches, snow buntings, lapland longspurs and other birds.

For more information, you can call the National Wildlife Refuge, (920) 387-2658, the Horicon DNR office, (920) 387-7860 and the Marsh Haven Nature Center, (920) 386-2182.

To get to Horicon, head north on 41, then west on Hwy. 33. In the City of Horicon turn right on Hwy. 28 and follow it for 1.5 miles to the DNR Service Center. Visitor information is available at the headquarters weekdays from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and on weekends during the spring and fall seasons. Additional visitor information can be found at the National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Turn west of Hwy. 41 onto 49. Turn left (south) onto Cty. Z and the headquarters is on the right, W4279 Headquarters Rd. The visitor's center is open weekdays, 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. From September-early November, it is also open weekends, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Thanks to William K. Volkert, Wildlife Educator/Naturalist, Horicon Service Center, for his assistance.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.