The Coulee Region

By Lennie Lichter

The Coulee Region ("coulee" is an old French idiom for the steep narrow valleys which abound in this area) is a region that takes in the Driftless (unglaciated) Area of southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. With no glaciers to level the landscape, frost, water and gravity have gradually worn down the sandstone and limestone hills through the centuries. Creeks, streams and rivers have eroded the heights that may have reached 300 or more feet above the present highest elevations. The smaller of these waterways created the before-mentioned coulees, transforming the landscape into the beautifully varied hills and valleys we have today.

The extremes in topography are the reason there are still so many large areas of woodland here that attract bird species that are not so common elsewhere in the Midwest. The larger rivers and backwaters replace the marshes and ponds of the glaciated areas and attract many kinds of water birds. Add to this mix the Mississippi Flyway, and you can see why we see so many different species of birds as well as other animals in the Coulee Region.

Well over 200 species of birds can be seen here within the cycle of one year. Winters here can vary: this year might find you knee deep in snow, standing in a cold wind as you gaze out at the frozen Mississippi River; and next Winter the River will be open and you're longing for just a little snow to brighten the scenery. No matter what the weather, this is the time you can find some of the hardy resident birds, from the small Black-capped Chickadee to the large Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk and Great-horned Owl.

The coming of Spring brings the slow push of the migrants following the Mississippi Flyway. The first of these will be the Red-winged Blackbird, the Killdeer and the Eastern Bluebird. Another prominent early migrant is the American Robin (provided they haven't wintered over). Next come the first waterfowl, along with the first insect hunters, like the Eastern Phoebe, the Brown Creeper, the Kinglets and later, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. These early insectivores are able to survive on other types of food if the weather turns too cold for them to find their usual prey.

As Spring turns to Summer, the many species of birds in the area can be watched as they set up their breeding territories and attract mates for the nesting season. The ducks and other waterfowl living in the Mississippi backwaters began courting their mates while they were still "down south", while many other species traveled here separately, with the males arriving in the woodlands, meadows and coulees before the females. The males use song to proclaim the fact that they are the current "owners" of a nice piece of property. The song warns other males to keep their distance while also advertising to migrating females that the nice piece of property he is showing off will provide the food and shelter necessary for raising a family. More than 120 species of birds nest in the Coulee Region.

And then, when it seems like you just got started watching courtship, nesting and the family behavior of the birds, you start to see the early fall migrants and realize that another season is approaching. Autumn begins early along the Mississippi Flyway, with the return of the first shorebirds. Early September brings the Warblers back through the area after a Summer spent in the north woods. Most of these are not quite as easy to identify as they were when they stopped by in May. A few weeks later and we start to notice that some of the birds that nested around here have also left for warmer climates.

Not all birds head south right away however; some spend the nights in relatively warm, protected areas, and flock out to feed during the day. Sooner than we'd like though, we find ourselves with fewer and fewer species to watch, until only the hardiest birds are left. These are the birds that will brave the northern Winter with us, and another circle of the seasons is completed.