Birding Joyce WMA (Louisiana)

March 14th, 2021.

My friend Claire and I decided to go birding early Saturday morning on March 14th in Louisiana. We left early, since I wanted to look for a Barn Owl that had been seen flying in and out of a boat house near the Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station in Akers, LA. It was daylight savings time and we were tired from the change but got there just before sunrise. We walked around and heard a lot of bird activity but didn’t see any large shapes perched or flying. The spot was interesting. It was right off of the highway, over a train track and situated next to a channel. As we walked we noticed a few Spotted Gar swimming near the water’s edge, but didn’t see any sign of the Barn Owl. With the sun now up, we headed to our main spot for the day, Joyce WMA. There had been reports of Norther Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Winter Wrens, all of which I was excited to see. We pulled into the parking lot at Joyce and saw a sign about being “Bear Safe”. I’ve never seen a Louisiana Black Bear, but I’ve heard that they can occasionally be spotted. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see warnings about them though.

We got out of the car and immediately heard the zipper-like call of the Northern Parula, and located two in the bushes. Also present was a Gray Catbird.

Northern Parula.

We crossed train tracks and looked at the boardwalk, which is the main point of access at Joyce. It looked like something out of a book I read as a kid. The path faded into the cypress swamp and made us feel like we were venturing into the great unknown. I said to Claire “this is so cool”.

The boardwalk at Joyce WMA.

We scanned the lower branches of the trees for Green Herons, but didn’t see any. We traversed the walkway and spotted Great Egrets, Wood Ducks, Carolina Chickadees, and heard several Fish Crows calling from above. Suddenly, I saw two small shapes fly out from under the boardwalk. One seemed slightly smaller and more round than the other and I thought they both looked like Wrens (both House and Winter Wrens had been reported). I scanned the ground but neither reappeared. We continued on, enchanted by the environment and spotted a bright yellow blob to the left of us, a Prothonotary Warbler!

Prothonotary Warbler.

This was a bit of a surprise, but definitely a welcomed one. We eventually made it to the end of the boardwalk and saw a few Cricket Frogs and heard a calling Carolina Wren.

We decided to walk the boardwalk back and forth until we located all of our target species. On our first trip back we heard more Northern Parulas calling from above and we also heard a slightly different call. Tracking the call we were able to pick out a Yellow-throated Warbler flitting around, high up in the Spanish moss.

Yellow-throated Warbler. Screenshot from video.

After enjoying our brief views we met a lady named Christie who was looking to locate one of the Parulas. We pointed out the calls to her and she kept on down the trail to get some views. She mentioned that she saw a Wren earlier and had a photo. I took a look at it and it was the Winter Wren! She told us where she saw it (which was the spot where we saw the small birds earlier) and then she headed back down the boardwalk to look for the Parulas. While we staked out the Winter Wren spot we met Brittany, who was also birding, and turned out to be a graduate student as well, most interested in herpetology. We talked about birds and herps for a bit as we waited for the Wren to pop up. We decided to continue walking and found a small bird hopping around in the weeds. After a bit of searching it popped out and turned out to be a House Wren.

Close, but not what we were looking for. We stopped to talk and wait for a bit and eventually Brittany said “Hey, there’s a Wren”. I zoomed in on it and it was really scruffy, but sure enough, it was the Winter Wren! It was a little weird seeing it in a swamp, but the little brown ball of fluff seemed right at home.

Winter Wren.

We went down to the end of the boardwalk and spotted a Broad-banded Watersnake before calling it a day.

Later on, on Facebook I saw that Christie got some great Northern Parula pictures! Overall, it was an awesome day of birding, where we located all of our target species in a unique and enchanting location. It also made me excited for more spring migrants!

-Derek

Rare Birds in November

While 2020 has been a year filled with turmoil and strife for many people, for birders in Wisconsin, this year has provided numerous rare birds. This trend continued in November when two Brants were reported within weeks of each other.

I made the nearly two hour trip up to Manitowoc in hopes of getting a look at the Brant that had been frequenting the impoundment. While the air temperature wasn’t particularly cold the high speed winds made it feel chilly. I walked out to the area where the bird was being seen to find several birds loafing around in the shallow water and on the mudflats. Among them were American Coots, Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, and Greater Yellowlegs. The sun was in my eyes making it hard to see, but from what I could tell, the Brant wasn’t mixed in with this assorted group of birds.

Brant

I continued walking south around the impoundment until I rounded the corner and saw a single bird sitting near a puddle. To my surprise it was the Brant! It was extremely close to the path and occasionally looked up from eating grass. I took several pictures and videos before moving around the rest of the impoundment. On my way back I encountered two Wilson’s Snipes along with a White-tailed Deer that was swimming out in the lake.

A few weeks later I followed a report of a Red Phalarope in Dane County. Knowing I had to go to work later in the dat, I made the quick decision to try for it. I drove the hour west under cloudy and ominous looking skies and got to the boat launch where the bird had been reported. To my delight I saw other birders pointing cameras at the lake.

Red Phalarope

As I got closer, I saw the small bird twirling around in the water no more than five feet off shore. It seemed to have very little to no fear of the birders present and went about its business feeding in what must have been fairly cold water. The Red Phalarope is the rarest of the three Phalaropes that make visits to Wisconsin and it was amazing to see a rare bird at such close range.

With all of the craziness that life has thrown at us this November it was great to be able to get lost in the chase and find some year birds.

The Finches are Coming?

Each year, certain migratory birds in North America make the trip south to their wintering grounds. This journey takes place every year in roughly the same pattern. So much so, that one can almost plan their calendar according to the arrival and departure of a certain species. However, there is another migration that takes place in a much different way: the winter finch migration.

Winter finches reside in the northern forests of Canada during summer and often move around in fall and winter. However, they don’t migrate in the same patterns as other bird species. In fact they don’t even repeat the same pattern from one year to the next.

Red Crossbill
Red Crossbill

The term “irruption” is often used to describe mass migrations of some of these northern species into the United States. In years past, birders have noticed increased numbers of certain winter finch species (Inlcluding Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and more) in some winters, while in other winters, North America’s conifer forests stand untouched by these birds.

Part of the mystery of winter finches is that for the longest time, it was unclear which species would irrupt (if any) on a given year and what the cause was for these large flights of birds moving across the continent. It turns out there is actually a singular driving force to the movements of these birds: food.

Purple Finch
Purple Finch

The best way to predict which winter finch species are going to be moving south is by analyzing each species preferred food source in the north. In particular, many of these birds feed on conifer cones. When cone crops are low, these nomadic birds migrate to other areas in search of food. Enter the winter finch forecast.

Each year experts (originally Ron Pittaway and now Tyler Hoar of Ontario Field Ornithologists) put together a detailed picture of which northern conifer crops are high and low in Canada, and therefore which finch species are expected to irrupt and move into the United states. What is particularly interesting about these finch species is that each one seems to prefer a different type of conifer seed as its dietary staple. Thus, understanding the movements of a particular species is somewhat of a scientific art form. This report has become an annual treat that is highly anticipated by birders excited by the prospect of seeing these colorful birds dotting the winter landscape.

White-winged Crossbills
White-winged Crossbills

The winter finch forecast usually comes out in the middle of September and provides an excellent sneak preview of what to expect as far as the types of birds you’re likely to see come fall and winter. You can find this exciting report by going to the Finch Research Network , joining the finches, irruptions, and mast crops Facebook group, or by waiting until someone in your local birding community posts it.

Note: In addition to the winter finches, the forecast also includes clues to other irruptive and nomadic species too such as Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings.

Red Knot in Manitowoc

On Sunday I took my friend Ashlee up to the Manitowoc lake front in search of some migrating shorebirds. Over the past week there had been multiple rare birds reported there including a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and a Red Knot. In addition, Manitowoc has some very pretty views along the lake which make it a great spot to visit even if the birds there are common.

When we arrived, there was a cool breeze blowing across the harbor and with air temperatures around 68 degrees (perfect for a September day in Wisconsin.) We walked the concrete path out over the water and before we even got to our birding spot, encountered two minks darting around the rocks catching Round Gobies. The minks must have been used to people as they made no qualms about being out in the open and even sometimes seeming to investigate the onlookers.

Mink
Mink

We continued to the end of the concrete path where we could see a lot of what appeared to be freshly dredged substrate. The peeps were out working the edges of the mounds of soil and puddles that dotted the landscape. The first birds we noticed on the mud flats were the usual Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Least Sandpipers. In addition to these birds in the foreground were Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs hanging out near the water in the back along with two American White Pelicans.

As we scoured the numerous birds feeding, we saw there were actually numerous Stilt Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers mixed in on the north side of the mud flats. As we looked closer, we noticed a dull gray bird that seemed different than anything else we saw there. This bird was round and stout with a stubbier bill than the nearby Stilt Sandpipers and had a faint white stripe over the eye. While it was missing it’s namesake reddish orange breeding plumage, this was in fact the Red Knot!

Red Knot

We watched the Red Knot for a while, getting some really nice looks at it before moving on. We decided to climb the rocks that lined the impoundment. Years ago these rocks were extremely easy to walk on as they were large and flat, but now, the lake had eroded large chunks of them away making it a bit more of an adventure. We rounded the bay where the shorebirds were and worked our way south on the rocks. Caspian Terns called overhead and Spotted Sandpipers flew from rock to rock as we walked by.

Eventually we made our way back to our original spot where most of the shorebirds were. A Great Blue Heron stood watch over the shorebirds and we found a buffy colored Baird’s Sandpiper among the peeps. The Red Knot was nowhere to be found when we checked the second time so we were very glad to have seen it the first time around.

Overall, it was an absolutely beautiful day in early September to be out birding and Ashlee and I enjoyed ourselves checking out the shorebirds and exploring Manitowoc.

The 7 Best Bird Species for De-Extinction

Disclaimer: This article does not discuss the ethics of de-extinction. It is only meant to spark interest and debate about potential candidates. 

In the natural world, there is no event more tragic than the extinction of an entire species. Since the 1960s more than 700 species of plants and animals have disappeared from the Earth, thought to never be seen again. Whereas extinction used to be finality, now there may be hope to one day see these creatures again through the process of de-extinction. De-extinction is the generation of an organism that is extinct. This process can be done through cloning, genome editing, and/or selective breeding.

While some of the most talked about animals to be brought back are large mammals such as the Tasmanian Tiger or Wooly Mammoth, some of the most realistic possibile candidates are birds. Here are the top seven birds that could potentially be brought back from extinction.

7. Great Auk

This large, penguin-like bird could be once found in the waters of the north Atlantic from the shores of Canada all the way to Western Europe. Humans are almost entirely to blame for the extinction of the Great Auk as it was hunted for its meat and down that was used for pillows. By the middle of the 16th century, this bird had been all but wiped out from the coasts of Europe. In 1835 the last colony of Great Auks was killed in Iceland on the island of Eldey for their skins, desired by museums. 78 Great Auk skins and 24 complete skeletons still exist, and cells could potentially be used for DNA extraction.

Great Auk

6. Labrador Duck

This sea duck was a migratory North American bird species that wintered off the coasts of New England and bred in Labrador and Quebec, Canada. This particular species seems to have already been rare at the time that Europeans arrived in the new world. As a result, not much is known about their life and habits. It is thought that harvesting of Labrador Duck eggs may have been a strong contributor to their eventual disappearance late in the 19th century. Their extinction is recent enough that specimens of this bird still exist and DNA could potentially be gathered.

Labrador Duck

5. Dusky Seaside Sparrow

The Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a Seaside Sparrow subspecies that lived in the Merritt Island salt marshes in Florida. It was known for its dark plumage and distinct song that separated it from other seaside sparrows. The cause of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow’s extinction is entirely due to habitat destruction. Merritt Island was flooded to reduce the mosquito population around the Kennedy Space Center. Later on, the marshes were drained due to highway construction. These two events destroyed much of the nesting habitat of these birds and led to their demise. The last known Dusky Seaside Sparrow died in 1987, but other subspecies still remain and could hold latent genes that could bring this bird back, or at the very least, a bird that has the same dark plumage.

Dusky Seaside Sparrow

4. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

One of the most legendary birds on this list, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is presumed extinct. However, sightings in the past few decades lend credence to the idea that some individuals could still be alive somewhere deep in the wilderness. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is/was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and possibly went extinct due to habitat destruction. The last accepted sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana. It is something of an icon as birders and ornithologists continue to mount expeditions to capture proof of its continued existence. A better option could potentially be cloning, as its extinction was in the last century and relatives of the species, including the Pileated Woodpecker, still thrive.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

3. Dodo Bird

The Dodo Bird has become synonymous with extinction. Living on the island of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar, the Dodo was a large flightless bird that had no natural predators. This became problematic when sailors arrived and not only hunted the Dodo for food, but also brought invasive animals with them that killed Dodos and ravaged their nests. This bird went extinct sometime in the late 1600s and reports of their actual extinction date vary. With bones and some soft tissue samples remaining, the Dodo could someday make a reappearance if they are chosen as a de-extinction candidate.

Dodo

2. Carolina Parakeet

Large flocks of Carolina Parakeets used to inhabit North America from New England all the way to the Mississippi River. These brightly colored and noisy birds moved and socialized in large flocks which may have partially led to their downfall. Carolina Parakeets were hunted for the feather trade and also to eliminate their numbers as they were considered to be a pest to farmers. Their social behavior made it all too easy to destroy entire flocks of birds at a time. Other causes of their extinction included habitat loss and disease. These birds essentially disappeared from the wild by the year 1904, and the last captive specimen died in 1918. There is hope, however, as DNA has been extracted from remaining skins and skeletons.

Carolina Parakeet

1. Passenger Pigeon

One of the most famous extinct animal species; the Passenger Pigeon, quite literally went from millions to none. At their peak, these members of the dove family spread from the Rocky Mountains, east to the Atlantic Coast. The chief cause of their rapid extinction was large-scale hunting as well as land clearing. Much like the Carolina Parakeet, the social flocking behavior of the Passenger Pigeon made it an easy target for hunters. The last Passenger Pigeon (named Martha) died in captivity in 1914. Since then, the Passenger Pigeon has become the poster-child for ecological preservation as it is proof that a species that was once extremely numerous is not impervious to extinction. It is possible that it could also be one of the flagship species to be cloned as enough DNA may exist to recreate the bird’s genome, and it has close relatives that are still alive and well (for now).

Passenger Pigeon

While the disappearance of any species is truly disheartening, there is hope that they may be brought back into existence. With scientists working on ways to synthesize genetic material, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before we will be able to see some of these birds in the flesh for the first time this century.

All photos public domain except for “Dusky Seaside Sparrow” by Wildlife Management Areas. https://flic.kr/p/N7Beef

Rare Warblers To Watch For This Spring

Just about every birder in the Midwest loves the arrival of spring migrants. During these months, no bird is more highly anticipated than warblers. These colorful and fast moving birds captivate the birding community for at least a month each year as everyone tries to gorge themselves on viewing as many of them as they can for the fleeting time they are here. While most species of warblers are easy to find during migration, there are some that are extremely rare. Some of these species are reported annually while others are only seen once or twice in a ten year span. Either way, finding one of these warblers can make even the most routine day birding into an instantly memorable day.

Black-Throated Gray Warbler

Extremely Rare

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

The Black-throated Gray warbler is aptly named for its black throat and dusky gray back is an extreme rarity in the Midwest with few individuals straying east of Colorado. At first glance, this species could be mistaken for a Black and White Warbler or a Blackpoll Warbler. Upon closer inspection, the Black-throated Gray Warbler has a distinctive yellow marking on the face near the bill. This species has been seen twice in Wisconsin since 2010 with all sightings occurring in May in either Dane or Ozaukee County. Black-throated Gray Warblers have also been seen in Minneapolis and north of Chicago. The most likely way to find one is to get out during May migration and check each black and white colored warbler very carefully.

Townsend’s Warbler

Extremely Rare

Townsend's Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler

The Townsend’s Warbler is another bird of Western North America that rarely strays out of its normal range. Their back is greenish yellow, their wings are black with two white wing bars, and their chest is yellow with black streaks. They have a dark cap, black throat, and distinctive yellow crescent shaped marking on the side of the face. Upon first glance they look similar to the much more common Black-throated Green Warbler, but with a closer look the differences are noticeable. Since 2010 there have been three instances of Townsend’s Warblers in Wisconsin. One bird seen at Pheasant Branch in Madison in May of 2014, one bird visiting a feeder in Kewaunee in December of 2016, and one interesting report of a bird landing on a boat 10 miles off-shore near Manitowoc in September of 2010. There seems to be very little pattern to the appearance of Townsend’s Warblers in our state but they do visit bird feeders so it’s possible that one could show up at a birders residence.

Prairie Warbler

Rare but Annual

Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler

The normal range of Prairie Warblers spans from the eastern Central America in winter all the way up to the Atlantic coast of Maine. Their visits to Wisconsin are few and far between with roughly one or two sightings each year. Males have a bright yellow underside with bold black streaking on the flanks and gray wings with a chestnut brown patch on the upper part of the back. They have a black semicircle under the eye. Females look similar but with more muted colors and a more grayish head. Prairie Warblers are not uncommon in lower Midwestern states but in Wisconsin the best place to find them is in the southeastern counties along Lake Michigan. There was one reliable Prairie Warbler present for five years straight during May Wisconsin’s South Kettle Moraine State Forest, but that bird has since moved on.

Kirtland’s Warbler

Annual and Breeding

Kirtland’s Warblers have a dark gray back with black streaks. Their throat and underside is bright yellow and they have distinct white markings directly above and below the eye. Males have a dark marking between their eye and bill while females are more drab with darker speckling on their underside. While not the most extravagant species, they are one of the rarest warbler species in North America due to their incredibly stringent habitat requirements for nesting. They require Jack Pines around 5-6 feet tall and leave the area once the pines exceed 10-15 feet. These birds winter in the Caribbean and migrate primarily to Michigan in the spring with a population also breeding in Wisconsin. Since this species is sensitive, there is little information on ebird about where to find them in Wisconsin but they do show up from time to time along their migratory path as well as in their top secret breeding grounds.

Worm-Eating Warbler

Annual and Breeding

Worm-eating Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler

The range of the Worm-eating Warbler is similar to that of the Prairie Warbler from Central America up the east coast and breeding east of Texas. This species is easily distinguished from other warbler species by its large pinkish bill and black head stripes on an otherwise buffy bird. Worm-eating Warblers live in areas with steep slopes and dense understory. They can be found in various places resembling this habitat in Wisconsin including Milwaukee, Madison, along the Mississippi River, and Devil’s Lake State Park. When trying to find this species listen for their high pitched buzzing call which sounds similar to that of a Chipping Sparrow.

Honorable Mentions

Other than the five species mentioned above, there are a few other warbler species that can be hard to find but are all expected to be reported several times a year or that breed in known locations in Wisconsin. Here is a brief listing of these species:

Connecticut Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Cerulean Warbler

These species are always nice to find. Especially if they are found away from their expected locations.

Final Thoughts

May is truly an exciting month for birders as millions of birds are on the move. With a bevy of different habitats in Wisconsin and rare species showing being reported across the state, who knows what bird might show up next. Hopefully, some of those reading this will have success finding one of these rare species in Wisconsin to make the month of May that more special.

 

Birding Rainy Milwaukee

On a cold Thursday in May, a report came through of Willets and American Avocets at Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee. In spite of the fact that the temperature was in the 40s and a steady rain poured over the entirety of southern Wisconsin, we decided to brave the weather and go see these annual, but still difficult to find birds.

When we arrived we could see numerous Herring Gulls dotting the grass and sand but couldn’t make out anything that looked like shorebirds. As we got closer, we noticed two dark shapes a few feet out from the beach. We were excited to see that these were American Avocets. We then noticed a group of five Willets that were tucked behind a large boulder and just now coming out. We stayed to enjoy these interesting birds for as long as we could until we were soaked to the point where we feared that our cameras would get too waterlogged.

We moved up the coast of Milwaukee to McKinley Beach. Here we found many Caspian Terns and two significantly smaller Common Terns. Also out over the water were hundreds of migrating Double-crested Cormorants.

Willet
Willet

Further north, we surveyed the area near Linwood treatment plant where we had a nice variety of sparrows including Swamp, Savannah, Song, and White-crowned. We also located Hermit Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and our first of year Black and White Warbler. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a lone male Bobolink calling from a large tree. I have had them in this location before so perhaps its a more common area for them than I realize.

Our final stop of the afternoon was Lake Park. Here we found White-crowned Sparrows, Northern Flickers, more Hermit Thrushes, and a Brown Thrasher. In the trees was a large group of warblers but the persistent rain and dark sky made them appear to be nothing more but black shadows against gray. A few of them dropped low enough for us to start distinguishing some features. The only non yellow-rumped in the group was an Orange-crowned Warbler. At this location, the most interesting bird was a Wilson’s Snipe that was feeding in some of the puddles in the grass.

Overall, for such a nasty weather day, we had a pretty good time birding. Even so, we were happy to go back home and change into some dry clothes.

Top 5 Wisconsin Birds of 2018

With 2019 on the horizon, a new year of birding, listing, and exploring is about to begin. However, before leaving 2018 in the year view mirror, lets take a moment to look back at some of the coolest birds that showed up during this past year. Here are the top 5 birds of 2018 in Wisconsin.

5. Tufted Duck

Month: January
Difficulty to view: High

Starting the year off with a bang was a Tufted Duck that made an appearance in early January. Tufted Ducks have a large native range being found from Russia and Siberia all the way to Iceland and Northern Canada. Thee birds do show up on the east and west coast of the United States but rarely make their way inland. With this bird typically found in Eurasia it’s no wonder that it caused a stir in the Wisconsin birding community. The problem however, was that the bird was spending most of its time on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River and placed itself in an inconvenient location for viewing. While it occasionally floated into Wisconsin waters and flew over the state, the time it did was sporadic at best. In fact, only 6 reports of this duck in Wisconsin made it to ebird.

4. Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite
Swallow-tailed Kite

Month: August
Difficulty to view: Low

As summer ended, one of the coolest birds to visit Wisconsin in recent years made a visit: the Swallow-tailed Kite. This particular bird was spotted west of White River Marsh in Marquette County and was nice enough to stick around long enough for almost everyone interested in seeing it to get a view. Typically found as far north as the Southeastern United States and with a range that spans well into South America, surprisingly, it isn’t unheard of for Swallow-tailed Kites to stray north. One made an appearance in Door County, Wisconsin in 2016 and some reports of this species are as far north as Canada.

3. Clark’s Nutcracker

Month: February
Difficulty to view: High

In one of the more bizarre situations in the Wisconsin birding community, a Clark’s Nutcracker was found at a private residence in the northern city of Minocqua. Native to the Western mountains of the United States and typically not straying into the Midwest, many were eager for a chance to view this bird. The problem though, was that the homeowners did not want hoards of birders and photographers descending on their house. As a result, area birders served as gatekeepers and only let a select few view the bird. The situation was irritating for many, but the bird was an interesting find nonetheless. Hopefully a more viewable member of the species is found in Wisconsin some day.

2. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Month: August
Difficulty to view: Moderate

The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is another extremely rare Eurasian visitor that is almost never found in the Midwest. It was found in Wisconsin’s Mecca for rare migrating shorebirds: Horicon Marsh. The Sandpiper was viewed by several people but locating it was a major task as it spotted on the mud flats of highway 49 where thousands of other shorebirds were also spending their time. Between heat shimmers, thousands of moving birds, and the target bird making inconsistent appearances, to many, this was the equivalent of finding a hay colored needle in a football field of hay stacks. Those that were able to find it were rewarded with adding a very rare species to their state lists.

1. Hammond’s Flycatcher

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

Month: December
Difficulty to view: Low

Coming in at number one in the countdown is the Hammond’s Flycatcher. Maybe it’s because it’s the most recent rare species to visit Wisconsin, or because of it’s ease to find that it ranks number one. Either way, the Hammond’s Flycatcher showed up just in time to give Wisconsin birders an early Christmas present. Found in the rolling hills of Iowa County, this bird would come and go multiple times a day seemingly at random. Much like the Swallow-tailed Kite, almost everyone who wanted to see this bird was able to cash in on the opportunity. This was Wisconsin’s first state record of the species.

 

Incredibly Rare Hammond’s Flycatcher

For a few days, a rare western visitor had been seen in Iowa County Wisconsin: the Hammond’s Flycatcher. The Hammond’s Flycatcher is a species of least concern in its natural range spanning from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Western portion of Nebraska. However, this species is almost never seen in the central Midwest, let alone Wisconsin. The Flycatcher had been appearing for brief windows of time and then vanishing into the thickets behind a house on a rural road. Other birders reported that once it disappeared, it would be gone for a number of hours before returning; making our timing incredibly important.

Derek and I had planned on leaving around 7:30 am and arriving at about 9:30 to give ourselves enough time to search. Yet again, our original plan was foiled by the fact that we accidentally slept in until about 9. We eventually got on the road and headed toward the small town of Avoca in hopes of relocating this elusive bird.

Iowa County
Sun shines through the fog in Iowa County, WI

As we drove through the countryside passing Madison area in the process the skies changed from clear blue to cloudy with billows of fog hanging above us. We had been optimistic about finding Golden Eagles soaring over the ridges on the way to our target bird but the lack of visibility made it almost impossible to look high enough into the sky.

When we finally arrived, several other cars were parked on both shoulders of the road in front of the house, and birders were out of their cars milling about. When we parked and got out of the car, another birder walked past us and said that the Flycatcher was in the crab apple tree in the front of the yard. We excitedly picked up the pace and got eyes on the small bird fluttering low in the bushes. As we watched, other birders told us that some of them had waited more than 2 hours for the Hammond’s Flycatcher to arrive.

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

The Flycatcher appeared to be very lively even with it being so far out of its normal range. With a bird straying far from its migratory path there is always concern about the birds health and well-being. Especially for a bird that usually feeds on insects finding itself braving a Wisconsin winter. Nonetheless, the Hammond’s was actively feeding on something as it appeared to be hawking insects too small for us to see. It jumped and fluttered from a crabapple tree in the front yard, to a small bush, to the ground, and eventually out of sight behind a shed. We waited for ten more minutes after the bird departed but it never came back into sight.

Feeling excited to add the Hammond’s Flycatcher to our life lists, we decided to try and catch a glimpse of a Golden Eagle on the way home. Much of the fog had evaporated away and the raptors had begun taking light. We noticed a Bald Eagle flying overhead as well as another one feeding on a deer carcass. A Rough-legged Hawk was perched on a telephone pole in the distance, and we passed two American Kestrels off the highway.

Suddenly, Derek noticed a large bird soaring low to the northeast of the road. We were able to get quick pictures of it as it continued east. The bird turned out to be an adult Golden Eagle. We followed it east until it climbed over a ridge and disappeared out of sight.

In all, we were gone just over five hours and found two rare birds. The Golden Eagle is an annual but occasionally tough to find visitor. The Hammond’s Flycatcher (if accepted by the records committee) will be a state first. It was a fun day to be out in Wisconsin searching for birds.

How I’ve Failed at Birding in 2018

Last week I woke up feeling the need to go birding. Admittedly, I hadn’t been birding as often this year as I would have liked. I was set to go to Madison that day to drop Derek off for a show he was playing and wanted to see what birds I could find in the area. I logged onto ebird and pulled up the ole’ year needs alert. I was horrified at what I saw. Common Loon, Snow Goose, Bonaparte’s Gull, Winter Wren?! What have I been doing this year?

With a sense of urgency, Derek and I made a stop at Tenney Park Dam on Lake Mendota and quickly located two Common Loons out in the waves. Relief rushed over me as I checked at least one ridiculous missing species off my year list. No less than five minutes later a Bonaparte’s Gull flew into view. Number two checked off the list.

Later that night I viewed my now slightly smaller needs list. I made it a goal to try and find those common species I was still missing to end the year on a high note.

A week later I crossed off Snow Goose as one turned up at Greenfield Park in West Allis. With three down I felt fueled in my quest to locate my missing common year birds. Here are the species I will be searching for the rest of the year:

Surf Scoter – Understandable
Black Scoter – Should be more to come
Canvasback – How?
Merlin – Can be tricky and viewing is often incidental
Winter Wren – Absurd
Tundra Swan – It’s like I don’t bird during migration
Barred Owl – I clearly haven’t tried
Eastern Screech Owl – I should just ask a photag
Ring-necked Pheasant – Do I even go outside?
Rusty Blackbird – Declining species, giving myself a pass

I will be looking for these species in the coming months and reporting back with my sightings. Leave a comment with the common birds you still need this year or anything else you consider a 2018 birding fail.

Disclaimer: Just to be clear, the definitions of birding success and failure depend on the individual. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen some of the birds I am considering common. We all share the joy of birding which in itself is a big win.