This popular state park west of Madison is a great spot for Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell’s Vireo, Cerulean Warbler, Whip-poor-will, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Orchard Oriole.
By Steve Betchkal | Published: 6/25/2010
Henry Dodge was governor of Wisconsin before it was even a state. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he was not a birder. But mention Henry’s name today and it’s secretive grassland sparrows that spring to mind, not politics.
“Gov D” is a hilly mix of forests, small lakes, and grasslands that harbors a wonderful diversity of birds, a few of which, like White-eyed Vireo and Yellow-breasted Chat, are at the extreme northern limit of their range.
While Bell’s Vireo is a tough find across most of the Midwest, it’s regular in the brushy edges along the park’s roads and trails. The increasingly scarce Whip-poor-will still breeds here. And because of the north vs. south biological “tension zone” dynamics at work, the park is home to both Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers.
Camping is popular (better make a reservation early!), and the wooded sites are within easy walking distance of all habitats, including Cox Hollow Lake. A walk around the small lake will often get me Orchard Oriole, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, and sometimes both cuckoos. The action starts early and keeps you up late, and when you finally drift off to sleep, it’s to the howls of Barred Owls. Nighty night! — Steve Betchkal
Steve Betchkal is the author of All of This and Robins Too: A Guide to the 50 or So Best Places to Find Birds in Wisconsin. He also wrote about Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, New Mexico, No. 119, and Wisconsin Point, Superior, Wisconsin, No. 121.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Thick oak forests with open sections of grasslands. Several small lakes.
Easy birding from roadside or a winding network of up-and-down trails.
Spring and summer: Wild Turkey, American Woodcock, Barred and Great Horned Owls, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-throated Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Scarlet Tanager, American Redstart, Bobolink, Clay-colored and Grasshopper Sparrows. Target species: Whip-poor-will, Acadian Flycatcher, Bell’s and White-eyed Vireos, Cerulean, Golden-winged, and Blue-winged Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Winter Wren, Henslow’s Sparrow, Orchard Oriole.
When to go
Spring through fall. Best birding May through early July, while the birds are still singing.
Restrooms and picnic facilities available in multiple locations, especially near the lakes. Purchase food and supplies in Dodgeville. Reserve campsites through the state-park reservation system, (888) 947-2757.
State park. Entrance fees per vehicle: $7 a day for residents, $10 for non-residents. Annual pass to all state parks and forests: $25 for residents, $35 for non-residents. Camping fees extra.
The insect-like buzzing of grassland birds such as Henslow’s Sparrow begins before first light. Get a campsite and set your tent alarm for “oh-dark-thirty.”
Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Located in Middleton just northwest of the Madison city limits. Wonderful spot for warblers, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers, and sparrows.
Brooklyn Wildlife Area
About 15 miles southwest of Madison and just east of Belleville. Sprawling grasslands and marsh. Best place in Wisconsin to find Yellow-breasted Chat. Also look for bobwhite.