At Horicon Marsh, you don't have to be an expert to find the wildlife. It's everywhere.
Considered one of the nation's top birding spots, Horicon Marsh sits just an hour northeast of Madison, Wisconsin. Split into state and federal wildlife refuges, the 33,000-acre preserve welcomes an estimated 300,000 birds every spring and fall. Nearly 300 species have stopped by, from the common Canada goose and tree swallow to the rare trumpeter swan and yellow-billed cuckoo.
Click ahead to read more about exploring Horicon Marsh, including a trip guide on slide 9. Slide 10 lists more top Midwest wildlife refuges.
A 50-mile loop road reveals Horicon Marsh's varied landscape: open water, cattail marsh, upland prairie and wooded wetlands. But you'll have more fun (and see more animals) when you get out of the car to stretch your legs and picnic along gentle bike and hiking trails. Two visitors centers supply maps and birding brochures, making it easy to explore on your own. If you want more help, the Horicon Marsh Bird Club puts on a four-day festival each May, with lectures, demonstrations and a variety of tours.
The club's president, Jeff Bahls, recommends a walk along Dike Road. "You never know what you're going to find there," he says. The 3-mile gravel road pierces the marsh's interior, taking visitors past three blue pools where waterfowl and shorebirds congregate. Spiky cattails poking out of the water attract rails, wrens, sparrows and even Sandhill cranes.
Horicon Marsh's trails and roads give just a taste of what you'll spot from the water. Marc Zuelsdorf, the owner of Horicon Marsh Boat Tours, offers both pontoon and paddling trips.
Drifting silently through the shallows, you might see two yellow-throated warblers chase each other in the treetops, fighting over a nesting area. Or carp bursting out of the water to snap up juicy bugs. Or a yellow-rumped warbler flashing his neon bottom.
A symphony of sounds surrounds paddlers: joyous whistles and trills, staccato clicks, sonorous tones and, sometimes, a single sweet note. Gliding back to the pier, Marc says, "You don't have to be a birder to come out here and enjoy birds." He's right, but visitors will learn another lesson: You don't have to be a bird to find refuge at Horicon Marsh.
The 34-mile Wild Goose State Trail bike path runs along the marsh's western edge.
In this vast landscape, it's a thrill even to spot backyard birds like chickadees.
The Horicon Marsh International Education Center offers maps and tips.
About 12 miles of flat hiking trails (including one with a boardwalk) provide easy access. Binoculars make bird-watching more rewarding, but you will spot plenty without them.
A path at the end of Palmatory Street in the small town of Horicon leads into Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area.
For area information: Horicon Chamber of Commerce (920) 485-3200; horiconchamber.com 
WHAT TO DO
Horicon Marsh The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the northern two-thirds of the marsh as Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. (920) 387-2658; fws.gov/refuge/horicon  Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources manages the southern third as Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 387-7889; dnr.wi.gov 
Horicon Marsh Bird Festival This four-day fest features lectures, bird-banding demonstrations and a variety of marsh tours. May 10-13, 2013. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 210-4832; horiconmarshbirdclub.com 
Horicon Marsh Boat Tours at Blue Heron Landing (pictured) Pontoon and paddling trips provide up-close views of wildlife. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 485-4663; horiconmarsh.com 
WHERE TO EAT
Celtic Crossroads Cafe Nosh on paninis, wraps or Irish fare at this Mayville cafe. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 387-9577
Ginger's Hide Away A plain exterior opens to a wildlife-theme restaurant serving burgers, pizzas, steaks and more in Horicon. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 485-4856; gingershideaway.webs.com 
Marsibilio's Trattoria This cozy Mayville spot serves authentic Italian fare. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 387-0387; marsibilios.net 
Rock River Tap Don't miss the Friday fish fry. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 485-4241; rockrivertap.com 
WHERE TO STAY
Honeybee Inn Bed and Breakfast This four-bedroom inn delights with comfy beds and delectable breakfasts. From $139. Read Midwest Living's review.  (920) 485-4855; honeybeeinn.com 
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Oak Harbor, Ohio (pictured) East of Toledo, Ottawa is great for beginners, with a flashy visitors center, boardwalks and a lively chorus of birds and bullfrogs. (419) 898-0014; fws.gov/refuge/ottawa  Magee Marsh is more rugged, but the park offers free binoculars, and a boardwalk crosses beds of lily pads where turtles sunbathe. (419) 898-0960; dnr.state.oh.us 
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa It's hard to know what's the bigger attraction here: the restored tallgrass prairie where a small herd of bison graze or the outstanding Prairie Learning Center, with its "underground" tunnel and Native American artifacts. In May, migrating songbirds join the grassland species that will stay all summer. (515) 994-3400; tallgrass.org 
Platte River Valley, Nebraska Thousands of Sandhill cranes migrate through central Nebraska each March (drawing an equally impressive flock of bird-watchers). You can see the birds from public bridges, but Rowe Sanctuary offers guided dawn and dusk bird-blind tours. (308) 468-5282; rowesanctuary.org 
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Great Bend, Kansas The nation's largest inland marsh is a key stop on the Central Flyway. The excellent Kansas Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms has easy walking trails right out the door. (877) 243-9268; wetlandscenter.fhsu.edu  And if you've made the trip here, don't skip Quivira, where residents include a prairie dog colony. (620) 486-2393; fws.gov/quivira 
Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Seney, Michigan Topnotch amenities, including photography classes and free binoculars, make this huge Upper Peninsula preserve feel more like a friendly state park. Two popular driving tours have marked stops where you can see baby birds and nests. Watch for trumpeter swans. (906) 586-9851; fws.gov/refuge/seney 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2012. Prices, dates and other details can change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)