Rob Zimmer column: Heckrodt Wetland Reserve provides four seasons of wildlife and beauty

Dec. 10, 2013
Wild calla is a fascinating aquatic wildflower that graces the wetlands at Heckrodt during spring and early summer. The pristine white blooms and beautiful green foliage float over the flooded lowlands and are easily visible from the elevated boardwalk trail. / Rob Zimmer/For


In this series, Rob Zimmer introduces you to the Fox Valley’s nature centers to showcase the richness and wild heritage found here in our back yard. Each of the area nature centers feature habitat and wildlife that separates it from the others. At the same time, these areas complement each other wonderfully, resulting in one of the highest concentrations of public natural areas found anywhere in the state. Follow the series each Tuesday during December and January.


• Heckrodt Wetland Reserve was born with a donation of five acres of land from the Frank Heckrodt to the City of Menasha in 1976. In 1991, the City of Menasha appointed an ad-hoc committee to begin development of the reserve. That same year, the Wisconsin Conservation Corps began building the boardwalk trail system. From 1991-93, 57 additional acres were purchased from landowners using funds from the Heckrodt Family Trust Fund and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Stewardship Fund. In 1994, the reserve opened to the public with 1.2 miles of trails available.
• In May 2005, 11 acres west of the reserve were purchased. This property was connected to the existing reserve with the addition of a bridge crossing Lopas Channel in September 2005. The 11 acres, a closed landfill, was developed over the next 3-5 years to include an arboretum mound fence, a prairie meadow and a wildlife management demonstration area.
• The ad-hoc committee formed the nonprofit corporation Heckrodt Wetland Reserve Inc. in 1995, just as the WCC was completing the second loop of the trail system, providing a total of 2 miles of trails for public enjoyment. The Heckrodt Environmental Learning Station (A-frame) was completed in 1997. The Lopas Family Environmental Learning Station, a renovation of an existing Lopas family structure, was completed in 1998, and design plans for the Heckrodt Nature Center were well underway.
• In the fall of 1998, ground was broken for construction of the nature center. The nature center was dedicated in June 1999, with displays including mounted specimens on long-term loan from the Oshkosh Public Museum.
• Today, Heckrodt Wetland Reserve is a 76-acre urban nature reserve with habitats including forested wetland, cattail marsh, open water, open field and upland forest. Persisting despite the urbanization that continues to grow around it, the reserve is home to numerous species of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Migrating songbirds and waterfowl nest and feed in its protection.
• The 6,000-square-foot nature center features a “Living Waters” exhibit with an indoor live wetland and aquariums that are home to live local fishes, crayfish, turtles, frogs and snakes, surrounded by a display of mounted Wisconsin mammals and birds.
• Outdoor exhibits include a memorial butterfly garden and bird feeding area, as well as a pond, bog and stream complex.
• Three miles of trail (more than two miles in elevated boardwalks) provide access to the reserve habitats to all visitors to explore and enjoy birdwatching, walking, photography and snowshoeing in winter.
• For more information, visit


MENASHA — Perched silently in the crotch of an old maple, a large barred owl kept careful watch over the frozen landscape at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve. The magnificent bird scanned the trace of snow below the tree and the surrounding forest, watching for voles and mice and other potential prey.

The owl’s beautifully textured feathers ruffled in the buffeting winter wind. As the sun gleamed through the forest trees and rays of warmth spread through the winter wetland, the bird began to rest for the day.

In all four seasons, Heckrodt Wetland Reserve offers wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities for those who venture out among the elevated boardwalk trails and out into the large prairie landscape.

Executive director Tracey Koenig said that Heckrodt offers something special and ever-changing for visitors during all seasons.

“The wetland itself is the main standout feature of the Reserve,” she said. “It is a beautiful area all year, changes on a daily basis, offers the opportunity to view so much wildlife, all of that right in the backyard of our urban area. It is a wild wetland in the city.”

This fall, a new section of boardwalk trail was completed through a portion of the wetlands.

During winter, whitetails, owls, river otter, woodpeckers, wild turkey, squirrels, even bald eagles, can be seen along the trails.

“People are most surprised by the sheer diversity of wildlife that calls our urban sanctuary home,” Koenig said.

“Many are amazed to learn that, right here in the city, we have threatened and endangered species that depend on our habitat, including Blanding’s turtle, several species of warblers and three of Wisconsin’s threatened bats. In addition, many critters that people associate with up north are living here, including river otter, muskrat, mink, red fox and others.”

Visitors to the reserve in all seasons can learn about the wildlife inhabiting the wetlands from informational signage along the trails that detail such topics as hibernation, snowflake structure, wildlife tracks in the snow, wetland wildflowers, prairie plants and more.

More from this series:

Part 2: Brillion Marsh | Part 3: Bubolz Nature Preserve

Spring flourishes

Spring brings an explosion of activity to the wetlands and forests at Heckrodt. As the snow and ice begin to thaw, the flooded lowlands here bustle with wildlife.

Migrating waterfowl, songbirds and herons descend upon the lowlands during spring, funneled naturally into this pristine woodland at the north end of Lake Winnebago as migrating birds typically follow the shores of the big lake on their journey north.

Those birds that stayed all winter begin to erupt into their rich and cheerful spring songs. Northern cardinals, perched high above the wetlands, sing their sweet, siren song, while robins, chickadees, juncoes and white-throated sparrows join the heavenly chorus.

Nearly 30 species of colorful wood warblers can be spotted here during the peak of spring migration during May.

Also during spring, the wetlands burst into color with spring wildflowers. Marsh marigold, wild calla, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit and others adorn the forest floor and wetlands. Tiny islands seem to float in the still waters, covered in colonies of mayapple, toothworts and other spring plants.

Another highlight of spring is the explosive chorus of frogs and toads throughout the temporarily flooded wetlands here. Wood frogs, American toads, green frogs and others burst into song during the height of breeding season.

Strolling through summer

Summer at the reserve finds the wetlands in their full glory, with lush ferns, buttonbush, wild calla and other vegetation creating an almost tropical atmosphere.

In the prairie, native wildflowers begin to bloom during summer, attracting many of Wisconsin’s beautiful butterflies. The reserve’s butterfly garden is a certified monarch waystation.

Families of birds are busy rearing young, as are the whitetails, and if you’re lucky, you may spot a fawn.

Turtles are on the move during spring and early summer as well, leaving the channel and marsh to nest on higher ground. Among them, rare Blanding’s turtles, patterned in beautiful black and yellow.

Walking trails that wind through the large prairie at Heckrodt offer great educational tools as well as a relaxing, meandering stroll among native wildflowers, trees and shrubs.

A standout nature center

Koenig said there are a few key elements that help distinguish Heckrodt from the other nature centers and natural areas found here.

“There are several things that come to mind, including the extensive boardwalk system that allows visitors to get close-up and personal with the wetland, while still protecting the sanctuary area around it,” she said.

“The sheer number of environmental education programs that are developed for families with children, as well as the fact that Heckrodt is the only nature center in the area that is directly adjacent to a bike trail,” also set Heckrodt apart, Koenig said. “While we don’t allow bicycles on our trails, riders can get to us easily on the bike trail along Plank Road.”

“Our wild area is so important, not only to the wildlife that call it home, but also to the people who seek solace and peace here,” Koenig said. “It provides a place of connectedness to the web of life, and grounds us in a world that is often too fast paced.”

For more information on Heckrodt Wetland Reserve, visit

— Rob Zimmer, Post-Crescent staff writer, writes about nature every Tuesday in his Nature Calling column. He is reachable at 920-419-3734 or Follow him on Twitter @YardMD.

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