Trempealeau NWR is one of the premier birding locations on the west side of Wisconsin and its diverse habitats including rolling prairies, rich wetlands, open water, and bottomland forests support a variety of wildlife and bird species. The area is especially good for birding during the spring and fall migration. However, the diversity of habitat also allows it to host an impressive array of breeding birds and year-round residents that make it a great birding destination throughout the year.
Species eBirded at hotspot: 234 Checklists in eBird: 300
Rare species eBirded: Ross’s Goose, Western Grebe, Snowy Egret, Golden Eagle, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, White-eyed Vireo, Harris’s Sparrow
Map (USFWS pdf)
The Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a 6,226-acre property located within the Mississippi River flyway between Trempealeau, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota on the west edge of Trempealeau County. It is located on the Great River Bike Trail and the trail is actually routed down several of the roads in the refuge. In fact, a bike would be a great way to explore some sections of the refuge which are closed to vehicular traffic. Although the refuge does not have any camping facilities, it is located about 5 miles north of Perrot State Park which does have a nice campground and is a nice birding destination in its own right.
The entrance to the refuge is located off W Prairie Road which can be accessed from Hwy 35/54 to the north or via back roads from Trempealeau to the south. The first half mile of the road crosses a wetland area which is worth checking for ducks, geese, wading and shorebirds depending on the season. When you reach the bridge over the Trempealeau River, make sure that you stop and listen for Prothonotary Warblers and other wetland passerines in late spring and early summer.
After crossing the Trempealeau River, you will reach an intersection where the north and south wildlife loops meet the entrance road. The prairie area to the southwest is the home to many species of grassland birds and it is worth a stop at this intersection to look and listen for them. Henslow’s, Lark and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Orchard Orioles, and many other species of grassland birds can be found here during the breeding season.
If you follow the north wildlife loop, the road follows the margin of the bottomland forest to the east and a brushy prairie area to the west. This area is also a good area to find grassland and savannah species. It is the home to many pairs of Lark and Field Sparrows, Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, and other species and watching the scattered trees may pay off with a look at a Red-headed Woodpecker. At the north end of this loop, there is a parking lot and an interpretive nature trail that heads out into this savannah area.
As the north loop turns and heads south, it goes through sections of upland hardwood forests and meadows and is also adjacent to more bottom land. This area is a great area to find Eastern Towhees, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Bluebirds and many other diverse species. You will often see raptors flying over the road and over the openings.
When the north loop reaches the entrance road, you will also have reached the refuge headquarters. There are maintenance buildings to the east and an office and visitors center at this intersection. The area around those buildings is a great area to look for Red Headed Woodpeckers. The open grasslands with scattered trees are some of their favorite territory on the refuge.
Directly west of the office/visitor center there is an observation deck that overlooks a nice marsh and also allows a view of a area of open water. During migration, this is a great place to see a variety of water birds including ducks, geese, swans, herons, gulls, terns, grebes, Bald Eagles, and more. Some of the really special birds seen from this deck include Western and Eared Grebes, and ibis.
The headquarters area is also the trailhead for a couple of walking trails. There is a short forest trail that loops through bottomland forest and there is also a trail that heads out to the Pine Creek Dike. The forest loop is a great place to see Indigo Buntings, Red-headed Woodpeckers, and other woodland species and the Pine Creek Dike trail gives you a chance to get close looks at marshland birds including Virginia Rails, Soras, and other waders.
If you head south from the visitor center you will hit an intersection that will allow you to go to the boat landing. The boat landing area and the adjacent Keip’s Island and Keip’s Dike trail are must visit locations during the spring migration. This area is often the scene of fallouts of migrating passerines and is also another area where you can view waders, raptors, waterfowl, and other water birds. South of the boat landing there is an active Osprey nest mounted on a pole. Keep an eye out for busy parents during the nesting season.
From the boat landing, there is a road/trail that crosses a small open water area to reach Keip’s Island. The trail runs the length of the island where it reaches the east end of Keip’s Dike. Keip’s island is a great place to see Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, and other woodland species and the dike is a great vantage point for scoping the open water areas to both the north and south. Western Grebes have been seen from this vantage several times over the past ten years during the spring migration. Shorebirds like Ruddy Turnstones as well as gulls, terns, loons, and ducks are also very visible here during the spring and fall migrations. During the peak of the tern migration, the numbers of terns flying in this area is amazing. Most will be Black Terns, but Forster’s, Common, and Caspian Terns are also regularly seen here.
From the boat landing, if you head straight east, you will intersect the south wildlife loop. This road once again divides upland and bottom land forests from an open area that includes some sections of oak savannah. This is another great area to find grassland birds including Dickcissels, Meadowlarks, and grassland sparrows and the varied cover on the outside of the loop includes mixed habitat that includes brushy areas with Blue-winged Warblers and occasionally Bell’s Vireos as well as more mature forest with Scarlet Tanagers, woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, and many other woodland species. The savannah areas in the middle of the loop are another great spot to look for Red-headed Woodpeckers, Orchard Orioles, and Eastern Kingbirds and occasionally rarities that have included Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds.
The north and south ends of the refuge offer the chance to access more marsh and bottom land. They are not open to vehicular traffic but do have trails and closed roads that can be used as walking and bike trails. If you are willing to spend some time to explore, they will be worth your time.
Text and Photos by Dan Jackson