Set on the edge of a hard-working urban port, the Milwaukee Coast Guard Impoundment (officially the Milwaukee Harbor Confined Disposal Facility) may not be much to look at, but it is one of the best birding locations in Wisconsin. It sits on a major migration corridor along the western shore of Lake Michigan.
Weedy plants, especially knotweed and wild sunflower, offer seeds for migrating sparrows and cover for many other migrants. Open water and mudflats attract shorebirds, herons, and egrets, as well as dabbling and diving waterfowl. And the outer walls, especially on the south end at the Lake Express Ferry, provide excellent vantage points for scoping gulls loitering on the South Shore breakwaters. Stories of life birds and first state records abound.
One of the first state records is mine. I was looking for sparrows and migrants one day in early May, but time was running short. I had to leave. As I walked along the edge of the open water, I suddenly thought about Black Rail. King, Virginia, and Yellow Rails and Soras were expected here every year, but not Black, even though it had been found along the lakefront in Illinois.
I hadn’t walked 10 steps after considering this when a small dark rail flew weakly from the edge of the water and dove blindly into the tall reed grass (Phragmites) — a Black Rail. It was Wisconsin’s first state record. I found the bird three more times in the next week, and another rail was seen well in September. — John Idzikowski
John Idzikowski is a records committee archivist for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and a past president of the society. He maintains a web-based archive of radar images of migrating birds and works in education technology in physiology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Open water less than 10 feet deep; mudflats, especially in late summer; open weedy areas; Phragmites; Lake Michigan, the inner harbor, and nearby breakwaters.
Parking area unpaved and rutted. North wall consists of broken limestone blocks. Fill is unstable, soft, and littered with pieces of junk.
More than 300 species recorded since 1970, including shorebirds, gulls and terns, herons, egrets, waterfowl, and sparrows. Rarities (all migrants): Mississippi Kite, Eurasian Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black-necked Stilt, Piping Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Black and Yellow Rails, Arctic gulls (Ivory, Black-headed, Little), jaegers, Green-tailed Towhee, Lark Bunting, and Baird’s Sparrow. Snowy Owl, raptors, and flocks of finches in winter.
When to go
March-November but of peak interest June-September. Highlights: migrating shorebirds July 10-Sept. 10, sparrows in September and October (Western Sandpipers consistent in late August, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow a target bird Sept. 15-Oct. 10). Look for five rail species along water edges in May and September and jaegers along the breakwater to the south Sept. 15-Oct. 10.
None, but restaurants (on S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) are within half a mile.
Dredge-spoil disposal facility. Look for birds from parking area and north wall (open for fishing), and scope the lake and breakwater from the ferry parking lot, especially in late fall. Fenced-in area is officially closed.
The port to the north is a concern for Homeland Security; cooperate with authorities. Wear long pants and thick-soled shoes if you walk along north wall. Biting flies can be bad in late summer. Fill material is toxic; wash mud off shoes. Look for birders near blue trailer in parking area most evenings after 6:30 p.m. June through September.