Hotspot of the month -- Arena Boat Landing

By cabridge September 29, 2011
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Hooded Merganser at Arena Boat Landing by Aaron Holschbach

Our random county for the September hotspot of the month was Iowa. Among the best birding sites in southern Wisconsin, Arena Boat Landing is a gem nestled in the Wisconsin River floodplain. It’s located in northern Iowa County, only a half hour from Madison. We recruited local expert and eBirder Aaron Holschbach who wrote the following piece about this month’s hotspot. Aaron also provided the photos, all of which were taken at the hotspot.

Fun facts

Species recorded on eBird: 236

Checklists submitted: 992

Rare species: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Franklin’s Gull, Thayer’s Gull, Carolina Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow

Bar graph


Arena MapThe Arena Unit of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway is 1,755 acres of hardwood bottomland forest, marsh, prairie, and pine barrens located two miles north of the village of Arena in northeast Iowa county. The main access point for this area is the Arena boat landing on the Wisconsin River at the north end of River Road. Birding along River Road can be quite productive, as can the walking trail that goes to the east from River Road. This area has a variety of habitats and over 230 species of birds have been recorded. Five unique habitats in this area are detailed below.

Area 1 – Pines and Barrens
Arena Boat Landing Pine Barrens

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This area consists of pine forest and a small section of pine and oak barrens. These pines have nesting Eastern Towhees and Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found here year round. In late winter evenings you may hear the tooting of Northern Saw-whet Owls, and in May through July Eastern Whip-poor-wills can be heard nightly calling from the understory of the pines. Lark Sparrows have been found here in spring and have nested along Village Edge Road the past couple summers. Pine Warblers are occasionally found here throughout the summer and Vesper Sparrows sing from the west end of the pines adjacent to the farm fields. In late fall and winter some northern species have been found here, including Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills.

Area 2 – Bottomland Hardwood Forest
Arena Bottomland Hardwood ForestThe Wisconsin River floodplain is the habitat that the Arena Boat Landing may be best known for. Some years Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are found here in spring or summer. The best area to look for the night-herons is the backwaters and flooded woodlands along River Road. In these bottomlands, there are also good numbers of Red-shouldered Hawks, a few of which stay through the winter. Pileated Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and a few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found here year-round, while Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Black-billed Cuckoos, and Prothonotary Warblers are present in spring and summer. The backwaters along River Road stay free of ice for all but the coldest winter days, which makes this area attractive to wintering Great Blue Herons, ducks, kingfishers, robins, bluebirds, sparrows, and blackbirds.

Area 3 – Walking Trail, Brush, and Fields

Arena Walking Trail, brush and fieldsAt the curve in River Road there is a walking trail that goes to the east. This trail leaves the bottoms and enters into an area of open fields, brush thickets, and wet fields. This area is usually flooded in spring, but typically dries up in late spring and summer. In summer the trail is not cut, so it is usually very overgrown, but for those who are adventurous enough to hike out into the tall grass, there are good birds to be found. In spring, Sedge Wrens, Willow Flycatchers, Bell’s Vireos, and White-eyed Vireos return to this area. White-eyed Vireos were confirmed to be nesting here in the summer of 2007, and a few pair of Bell’s Vireos nest annually in the thick brush along the trail. In fall migration, hawks and large numbers of migrating sparrows are found in the brush and fields along the trail. A few Nelson’s Sparrows have been found in late September. In winter this area is home to Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Shrikes, and Short-eared Owls. Sandhill Cranes have also stayed here throughout the winter some years.

White-eyed Vireos

White-eyed Vireos

Area 4 – Wisconsin River
Arena WI RiverAt the end of River Road is a boat landing on the Wisconsin River. From this landing you can view the river both to the east and to the west of the landing. Bald Eagles and Red-shouldered Hawks may be perched in the trees along the river any month of the year.

Res-shouldered Hawk

Res-shouldered Hawk

In early spring, Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese have been seen from the boat landing. Flocks of American White Pelicans can be found here during spring and fall migration. When water is low sandbars and mudflats are exposed, and flocks of shorebirds can be found. Shorebirds have included Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Willet, Sanderling, and Ruddy Turnstone. Large flocks of gulls and terns are present at times and there is potential for rare gull species especially during migration and winter. Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs also use the exposed sandbars during fall and early winter. In winter when there is open water Trumpeter Swans and several duck species have been seen.

Area 5 – Cattail Marsh
Arena Cattail MarshTo the south of the walking trail is a fairly large Cattail Marsh. Although this marsh does not have much open water for waterfowl or large waders, it does host some marsh birds. In spring and summer American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, Soras, Northern Harriers, Marsh Wrens, and Sedge Wrens can be found here. Least Bitterns and Black-crowned Night-Herons have also been found here on occasion. In winter, Rough-legged Hawks and Short-eared Owls can be found in this area. The marsh can also be viewed from Fortier Road which runs along the south edge of the marsh.

American Bittern

American Bittern

Thanks again to Aaron Holschbach for writing the article and providing habitat pictures!