Last Sunday (June 3, 2018), I decided to sample a few areas in the southern part of the state in both Dane and Sauk Counties. The trek began early in the morning at Brooklyn State Wildlife area located just south of Madison in Dane County. Several Field Sparrows perched up on my way down the trail. I was also serenaded by the songs of Brown Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. It wasn’t until I walked about half a mile in that I heard the distinct mewing and catcalling of a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT. I was able to locate the bird singing near the top of a nearby tree hunkered in it’s leaves.
This bird, about the size of a grosbeak, is often heard and not seen due to their elusive nature. Chats are found in areas with dense brush, such as thickets and forest openings and primarily seen in the southern part of the state. The Yellow-breasted Chat was once considered to be in the Wood Warbler family, but in 2017, this species became the only member of the Icteriidae family.
After being satisfied by a decent show from the Chat, I moved north to Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. This area was formerly the Badger Army and Ammunition Plant, at one time the largest manufacturer of munitions in the world. The drive down the main road yielded some decent open country birds such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Clay-colored Sparrows. Most notable was a singing BELL’S VIREO not far from the entrance. After driving a few miles into the property I made it to the dense brush I was looking for. A singing WHITE-EYED VIREO sang its harsh, rapid song. Unfortunately, the bird never made an appearance before the wind picked up and activity died down.
The icy claws of winter have started to grip the Midwestern United States. To the chagrin of many birders, most of the fall migrants have moved on. However, with the cold weather comes a whole new group of birds from the north woods and Canada including some interesting rarities. Here are the top ten birds to look for this winter in Wisconsin.
The first bird on our list has a wide and ever changing range due to its frequent movements: The Red Crossbill. The Red Crossbill moves around often in search of conifer cones. This leads to a mass movement of the species away from areas where food sources are scarce. Red Crossbills have already been spotted at a relatively high rate this year and it could be a good winter for them all across Wisconsin. Look for them around stands of conifers with bountiful cones on them and listen for their “jip” “jip” flight call.
To learn more about Crossbills check out this video at 6:30.
While it’s true that Dark-eyed Juncos are easy to find and very common in winter, not all Juncos are created equal. There are several different sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco that inhabit different parts of the United States. The most common sub-species in Wisconsin is the Slate-colored, but other subspecies include Oregon, Gray-headed, Pink-sided, and White-winged. The most noticeable sub-species that can be found in Wisconsin during winter is the Oregon Junco with its dark hood, brown back, and lighter tan sides. Look for Juncos along forested roadsides, grassy fields, and feeding near bird feeders.
Named for their nomadic nature, Bohemian Waxwings look very similar to Cedar Waxwings but can be differentiated by their overall coloration and brownish red under tail coverts. Bohemian waxwings constantly move around in search of fruit trees during winter and often congregate in very large flocks. During winter, they occasionally make their way down to the lower half of the state but can typically be found in central and northern Wisconsin each winter. Bohemian Waxwings have been known to associate with Cedar Waxwings so checking through each bird can be a good idea. Look for Waxwings around fruit and berry trees.
During the winter several duck species make their way south to the great lakes. Along with the Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, and Bufflehead is a slightly rarer sea duck: The Harlequin Duck. Harlequin Ducks are relatively small (about the size of a Bufflehead) and can be identified by the white spot on their cheeks. Females are a drab grayish brown while males are more extravagant with navy blue and rust colored bodies with white accent marks near the wing and chest. Harlequin Ducks are most frequently found along the coast of Lake Michigan but have also been found inland.
Soaring in at number six is the Golden Eagle. Along with the Bald Eagle, Golden Eagles can be found in the Winter skies in Wisconsin from December to February with some stragglers outside of that date range as well. Look for large raptors with a distinct dihedral circling above. The best places to find Golden Eagles in Wisconsin are in the Western part of the state where there are bluffs capable of creating updrafts.
To learn more about Golden Eagles, check out this video about our Eagle search in Grant County.
With cold weather on the way, it’s only a matter of time before ice starts to form on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. This means that plenty of gulls will be loafing on the newly formed ice shelves. Winter brings many interesting gull species including Great-black Backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland Gulls. In recent years, Wisconsin has also played host to a vagrant gull species: The Slaty-backed Gull. Slaty-backed Gulls are extremely rare in the United States away from Alaska and they can be more readily found in Eurasia. However, Wisconsin has seen at least three confirmed Slaty-Backed Gulls in the past two years making it a viable species to keep an eye out for near the Great Lakes or at the landfill.
Possibly the biggest winter fan favorite of all is the Snowy Owl. People from miles around flock to areas where Snowy Owls have been seen in hopes of catching a glimpse of the majestic birds. Much like Red Crossbills, Snowy Owls are irruptive and venture south when lemmings are scarce in the north. Snowy Owls can be found in open fields where they search for rodents. They also pop up along the lakefront where they can be seen perching on break walls. Keep in mind that Snowy Owls are easily stressed out, therefore it’s important to stay a good distance away when viewing to avoid disrupting them.
Each winter, the western residing Townsend’s Solitaire makes its way East. Some birds migrate much farther than others and end up in the Midwest. In fact, when looking at their range, the map shows a small migratory line in winter that passes through Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Solitaires feed on juniper berries and can be found in places where the juniper crop is plentiful. They also prefer bluff-y areas such as Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County.
Check out this video to learn more about Solitaires at Devil’s Lake State Park.
The Black-backed Woodpecker is a permanent resident of Wisconsin’s north woods. However, they can be incredibly elusive and difficult to locate. This year, there has been a massive flight of Black-backed Woodpeckers moving down into the United States. This means there could be an influx of the species this winter in the northern parts of the Wisconsin. Look for Black-backed Woodpeckers in boreal forests in the state’s northern counties.
Coming in at number one on the list is another western united states species that finds its way to Wisconsin: The Varied Thrush. Much like the Townsend’s Solitaire, the winter migratory path of the Varied Thrush leads a handful of individuals into the dairy state each winter. This brightly colored bird has a habit of showing up at feeders and typically doesn’t stick around for more than a few days.
Winer time can seem boring with gray skies and lifeless trees, but just because some creatures have gone dormant doesn’t mean there won’t be interesting birds to find. In fact, many of the winter arrivals are very exciting.
Birds in winter (non-breeding) plumage can be extremely difficult to identify, especially Grebes. With these tips, hopefully it makes identification a little easier, and will help to make you a “Grebe expert” in the field. The guide is broken up into 3 different size categories (Large/Medium-Large/Small) and discusses the most frequently seen Grebes in the state of Wisconsin.
Overview: The Western Grebe is a rare visitor to the state of Wisconsin. It is extremely similar to the Clark’s Grebe (which is far less-likely to be found in the state with the last ebird record dating back to 1987). They often show up as one solitary individual on a large body of water such as Lake Michigan. They are bright white and dark gray/black with a long, slender, yellow bill, and a red eye.
Bill: Long, thin, yellow bill. Bill is normally at least 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray body, black back and top of head and neck. White underside of neck and body. Stark contrast between white and dark coloration. Red eye.
Body Shape: Medium sized, large for grebes (21.7-29.5 inches). Similar to the size of a large Red-breasted Merganser (20.1-25.2 inches) or a smaller Common Loon (26-35.8 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Western Grebe is larger than most Grebe species except for the Red-necked Grebe which can be similar in size, although the Red-necked Grebe is far less bright, and more dull gray and white, compared to the bright white and black seen in the Western Grebe. Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than horned grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns (see photo below). The Western Grebe will have a longer, more slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as 3/4 the length of the head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Horned Grebe (winter plumage)
Western Grebe (winter plumage)
Overview: Red-necked grebes can be seen on larger bodies of water during migration in the winter months. They lose their bright summer colors and trade them in for dull gray-brown plumage. They are medium in size and larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species, but not as large as Western Grebes or Loons.
Bill: Bill is about 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray to gray-brown body and top of head with white throat and cheek. The areas are not strongly defined and portions of the plumage appear “muddled”. Brown eye, yellow bill.
Body Shape: Medium sized, medium-large for grebes (16.9-22 inches). Comparable to the size of a Canvasback (18.9-22 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Red-necked Grebe is larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species and will be mostly gray-brown in color with some white near the face. The horned Grebe will have a smaller bill, and a whiter face when in winter (non-breeding) plumage. The Western Grebe will have a brighter white color than the non-breeding Red-necked grebe.
Overview: Horned Grebes are the most common gray and white grebe seen in the winter in Wisconsin. They are small in size, and multiple Horned Grebes are often seen in the same location, although they will not necessarily be “flocking” with each other.
Bill: Bill is less than 1/2 length of the head and fairly dark in coloration, black or gray.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray-brown body and top of head with white underside of throat and cheek. Red eye, with line coming down to base of bill.
Body Shape: Small and compact (12.2-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Bufflehead (12.6-15.7 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Horned Grebe can appear very similar to the Eared Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes. The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a Horned Grebe will not. The lack of “peaked” feathers, and more stark gray and white coloration also differentiates them from Eared Grebes. (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than Horned Grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns. The Western Grebe will have a longer, slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as its head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Overview: Despite the Eared Grebe being the most common grebe in the world, it is considered rare in Wisconsin. It is one of the “small” grebes and will normally show up solitary or flocking with similar sized birds. They often have “peaked” feathers on the head and are likely to be most confused with Horned Grebes in the winter.
Bill: Thin, dark in color, often can appear to be slightly pointing upwards. Less than 1/2 the size of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray and white body with red eye. Most individuals have peaked feathers on top of their head. Some white is present on the throat and nape of the neck, along with some white visible on the flank.
Body Shape: small and robust, with peaked crown on top of head (11.8-13.8 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches). The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, as opposed to sloping into the water.
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Eared Grebe can appear very similar to the Horned Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). The back end of an eared grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a horned grebe will not. The shape of the head with the “peaked” feathers, and more mottled gray coloration and short, thin bill are also solid identification features.
Overview: During the winter the Pied-billed Grebe is often seen on larger bodies of water in small flocks. Their head is blocky and large compared to their smaller body. They often resemble a small “Loch-ness monster” shaped bird, and dive frequently. Therefore, when looking for Pied-billed grebes, make several scans.
Non-breeding coloration: Brown body (sometimes gray), brown eye.
Body Shape: small and lanky, with long neck compared to body (11.8-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Pied-billed grebe is the only common grebe in Wisconsin that is small in size and brown in color. Their blocky head, slender neck, short and stocky bill also differentiate them from similar species.
All in all, picking through winter Grebes can be tricky, but knowing the key ID features can help you spot a rarity in Wisconsin. Whether it’s the “submarine-like” body of the Pied-billed Grebe, the “peaked” head of the Eared Grebe, or the long bill and neck of the Western Grebe, keep an eye out for the key characteristics that make all species of winter Grebes unique.
There are many different ways in which birding can appeal to an individual. Some like the thrill of chasing rare birds, some like observing birds from the comfort of their own home, and others enjoy the nuances of bird behavior. While all birders find something fascinating about the hobby, it means something different to each person. For most, there is a certain category that can be used to describe their primary interests. No one distinction is better or worse than another, but each attracts people with different goals in mind. Which one best describes you?
You just recently became interesting in birding. You’ve definitely seen birds before, but you never gave them much attention until that one time the light shimmered off of a Northern Cardinal in just the right way. Then, when you realized there was a whole community of birders out there you were hooked. You don’t necessarily know the finer points of identifying some species, but you are eager to learn as much as you can. You long for the day when you can easily distinguish between a Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitcher with ease, but until then your enthusiasm for your new hobby will keep things exciting.
The Feeder Watcher
You don’t do a whole lot of birding away from your house. Why would you need to when all of the birds come to you. Plus, you can watch them from the window without ever having to venture out into the elements. You started with just one feeder and now you have many (of all different varieties). You know what time of year the Juncos come and go as well as when the first and last hummingbirds arrive and depart. You love your brief visits from White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers and dream of the day when a rarity decides to stop at your platform feeder.
You go birding a lot. You also bird in a variety of locations. You may keep a life list and you definitely enjoy being outside. However, the thing you enjoy the most is that perfect shot. You have a nice camera with a very big lens and you absolutely love displaying your photos on social media. Your curse is that you are always striving for an even better picture, but your aesthetic eye will never let you be satisfied with your work. On more than one occasion you have passed on social activities with friends because you “need to go home and edit.” Your happiest moment came when a Snowy Owl perched up on a fence post in perfect light with small snowflakes glistening in the background.
Mr. One Spot
You absolutely love birding but you only do it in one or two locations. Maybe you live next to a birding hotspot or one is on your way home from work, either way, that place has become your go-to. You frequently post reports from this location and know it inside and out. You have a bigger bird list at this one spot than most do in an entire state. You suspect you’ve become this person when people personally message you to ask if you know whether or not a certain species can currently be found there. You know for sure you have become this person when you do, and can give them an extremely detailed answer about where to find it.
The County Birder
You are a serious birder who has a real affinity for the county you live in. Maybe it’s the habitat diversity, or fact that you know it well that keeps you around. Either way, you rarely travel outside of your county. You know all the best places to bird near you and would much rather stay close to home than venture out and chase birds. As opposed to going to known locations in the state to find particular species, you search out similar habitat within the county lines and continue searching until you find it there. At least 90 percent of the birds you’ve found this year are in your county and the ones outside of your county were either extreme rarities or accidental.
You are known for one thing: your extremely long list of birds. When you first started getting interested in birding the idea of keeping track of all of the species you’ve seen appealed to your collector side. Your competitive spirit relishes the chance to accumulate a higher total than others even though you’d never admit to it. You may keep any number of lists ranging from county, ABA area, for the day, the month, the year, and so on. Although you say you just bird as a light hobby, you can be found at every rarity reported throughout the year in hopes of adding to your life list.
Listing and photography is great, but for you, it has somewhat lost its luster. You are interested in a new sort of challenge. For some, it’s birding without the use of fossil fuels, for others its documenting specific bird behavior. You have gone to extreme lengths to locate birds for your particular niche, whether it be hiking through dense brush to document breeding of Red Crossbills, or biking seven miles to relocate a bird for your BIGBY that you found earlier in the day when driving in your car. Some of your closest family and friends think you’re crazy but you don’t care as long as you confirm Hooded Warblers nesting in your breeding bird atlas section.
When everything is quiet on the rare bird front you are out scouring your favorite haunts for vagrants. While others see a flock of American Coots and don’t dare think about looking through them all, you’re grinding away checking each of them one by one to make sure their isn’t a Eurasian Coot mixed in. You are consistently the first to find a needle in a haystack type bird and enjoy the challenge. 1,000 Lapland Longspurs in a field? You walk every inch of that field in search of a Smiths. Flock of 600 Greater Scaup? There must be a Tufted Duck mixed in somewhere. Others thank you for your intense focus and supreme effort.
Though some of these categories may sound more familiar than others, a birder may not fit into just one category but rather many at one time. Others may transition from one category to another as they become more seasoned. That’s part of the beauty of birding, no matter the skill level or interest, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
On Sunday Bri and I went to Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County to do some exploring. I had never really walked Harrington Beach extensively so a lot of it was new to me. We started by heading to the beach where the high winds were causing massive whitecaps out on the lake. Many migratory water bird species were reported on the lake but today the only birds we could see were some common gulls and a small flock of Mallards.
We continued walking west where we found the quarry lake and followed the path around. Two Belted Kingfishers were rattling as they flew round the lake. In the soaked orange leafed branches two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers chased each other around.
After a very pleasant walk around the quarry lake we started heading back north to the car. Along the way we found more flocks of assorted as well as a single Lincoln’s Sparrow that popped up momentarily and gave us nice looks. On some of the weeds along the trails we found our first of fall American Tree Sparrow. American Tree Sparrows along with Juncos are a natural indicator that fall is coming to a close and winter is on its way.
Near the parking lot we encountered a surge of Brown Creepers. These tiny spring and fall migrants are one of my favorite birds due to their adorable appearance. The can sometimes be seen in fall as they hop up trees but never down.
We had a great day at Harrington Beach State Park exploring the paths with sun and fall colors all around. We will definitely go back, hopefully next time there will be some more birds out on the water.
I went to Retzer Nature Center to check on the migrant bird activity. Just about all of the summer birds have officially cleared out and the birds of fall and winter have taken over. I started by walking the blue trail to the pond where Blue Jays were flying back and forth over the trail. The American Goldfinches that frequent the area have all transitioned to their drab colors. There were sparrows rustling in the tall grasses but none of them sat up high enough to actually make an identification.
I continued onto the green trail that goes past the tractor lane and into the forest. At the forests entrance there were three remaining Field Sparrows. As I entered the tree line I could see a lot of small birds flitting around. They turned out to all be Yellow-rumped Warblers. Further on the Green Trail I encountered a few American Robins and a Downy Woodpecker drumming in its usual location. From the woods I made my way to the top of the hill where the tall grasses of summer still remain. However, the bird activity had completely ceased. I did not find a single bird in the areas where the most activity happened earlier in the year.
From the hill I made my way down the tractor trail on the north side of the nature center. Here I encountered more field Sparrows and a group of Palm Warblers. The warblers were staying low in the shrubs but occasionally popped up and gave nice views. Also in the area was a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet moving quickly through the bushes. I moved south into the pines from the tractor lane and here I found the largest collection of birds on the whole nature center. At least 100 American Goldfinches were foraging on seeds from flowers as others were feasting on pine cones along with Black-capped Chickadees. Along with the Goldfinches and Chickadees were some Red-breasted Nuthatches. These birds are irruptive and can sometimes be found with much more regularity than others. I hadn’t seen any at Retzer for at least three years so it was nice to find a few of them again.
My last bird of the day was also found in the pines. It came in the form of the harbinger of winter: the Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos migrate south to Wisconsin each winter and they are a solid indication that cold weather is on its way.
In all, I tallied a decent amount of species in about an hour and fifteen minutes of birding.
During fall migration, birders flock to their favorite weedy fields in search of migratory sparrows. While there are plenty of species to see, two of the birds at the top of the list are Nelson’s Sparrows and LeConte’s Sparrows. Both the Nelson’s and the LeConte’s are Ammodramus sparrows, perfectly at home skulking around in tall grasses and often only visible when flushed. Since these sparrows are quick moving and elusive, it’s important to know the key points to look for in order to make a positive ID.
At First Glance
A birder walks through a field of tall grass when suddenly a small bird kicks up for two seconds only to disappear back into the thick foliage. Was that a Nelson’s or LeConte’s Sparrow? Or was it something else entirely? Knowing some things to look for in a situation like this can narrow it down a bit. Both Nelson’s and LeConte’s have a compact appearance with a short, worn looking tail. They also have notable orange features on their face that most other birds lack. For Nelson’s, their dark gray coloration on their cheeks and nape can be seen even in flight. For LeConte’s, their buffy color and brighter orange is notable.
When perched or relatively stationary, some ID points separating Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows become more evident. One such feature is the nape. The nape of a Nelson’s Sparrow is solid gray. LeConte’s Sparrows have a pinkish brown nape with noticeable chestnut streaking. This may sound like a tiny detail, but when looking at the two images below, the contrast is easily visible.
Some of the most striking features of the Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows are their unique colors and patterns on their faces. Both species have orange on their face, but the Nelson’s orange is deeper and darker than the LeConte’s which is lighter and brighter. In addition, the same deep gray color on the nape of the Nelson’s Sparrow is also found on it’s ear patch. LeConte’s Sparrows also have an ear patch, but it is much lighter in color sometimes bordering on tan.
Out of all the distinguishing features between these two sparrows, the most reliable may be the stripe of the top of their head. Nelson’s Sparrows have a dark gray head stripe while LeConte’s Sparrows have much lighter white or cream colored stripes.
These birds can be tricky to identify in the field in large part to their skulky and elusive nature. With these tips it may be a bit easier to discern the two species. Armed with knowledge, start checking damp, weedy fields to see if you can find one of these migratory birds!