On January 17th I heard that a Harris’s Sparrow had been seen by the bird feeders at the Mequon Nature Preserve in Ozaukee County, WI. A day later I decided to make the 50 minute trip north to see if I could find this rare bird.
The Harris’s Sparrow breeds in Northern Canada and can reach as far south as Texas in winter. Their normal range is between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River but each year, a few individuals stray into other parts of the country such as Wisconsin, where a handful of reports come in each year.
With a blizzard the night before, I felt confident that the bird had stayed put and would be looking to the feeders at the preserve for food. When I arrived and got out of the car some light snow was falling and the wind made being outside unpleasant to say the least. A snow removal worker was plowing snow off the parking lot and shoveling the sidewalks and pathways. I walked around the east side of the building and a small flock of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos flushed from some nearby bushes. I scanned through them, hoping to see the Harris’s among them. No luck this time. I went around to the north side where some bird feeders were. Several birds were actively feeding, including more Juncos and Tree Sparrows and some noisy House Sparrows.
I continued around the building, coming to the west side where there was one feeder and a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, but nothing else. I knew at this point it would be a waiting game.
I made a few more laps around the building when suddenly there was a larger flock of birds at the feeder to the west. Among the smaller birds I had already seen was one that was slightly larger. It had a black cap and white chest with a bright orange beak: It was the Harris’s Sparrow! Just as soon as it had appeared it took off across the road into the shrubs where it seemingly vanished. Feeling unsatisfied with my second-long encounter, I waited longer, thinking it would be back again at some point. As I waited, several other birds came and joined in the search.
It was nearly an hour of people with cameras and binoculars milling around and checking feeders until the sparrow returned. When it did, it stayed in the bushes near the feeder, occasionally moving around. From time to time it would fly up on some wood beams attached to the building. It gave pretty good lucks but was almost always obscured by branches and twigs.
Other birds seen were a flyby Cooper’s Hawk and a surprise flyover Glaucous Gull.
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.
The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and everything is just a little spookier. Halloween is fast approaching, and with it come many natural representations of the holiday. Whether its bats, black cats, or pumpkins that get you in the mood for Halloween, there’s no question that this holiday is strongly tied to the flora and fauna of the fall.
Along with the traditional Halloween animals, Wisconsin plays host to several birds that could also serve as creepy additions to your Halloween. Whether it’s due to their coloring, habits, or association to darkness, these six birds embody the spirit of October’s holiday.
6. American Crow
The American Crow is one of the most intelligent and least appreciated birds in Wisconsin. They can be found in a variety of habitats and can often be seen soaring over highways and perching in dead trees. They eat a wide variety of foods and frequent garbage cans and other locations they can find discarded scraps. The American Crow is closely associated with darkness due to their preferred habitat being open fields and other places where little grows, inquisitive personalities, and dark coloration. Their caw evokes images of walking into dark woods as night falls. Their black color, desolate imagery, and cunning intelligence lands the American Crow at number 6 in the countdown.
5. Turkey Vulture
Soaring in at number five in the count down is the Turkey Vulture. Turkey Vultures feed mostly on carrion, using their extremely powerful sense of smell to locate dead animals. There is possibly no harbinger of death better known than the vulture. They are often represented in media as a sign that a person or animal is about to die as the vultures circle above in anticipation of a meal. The Turkey Vultures reddish-pink head is featherless so rotting meat doesn’t get stuck in their feathers when eating rotted flesh. This bald, skeletal looking head makes this bird look even creepier as it flies low over the landscape literally trying to smell dead meat. The Turkey Vulture’s association with death and zombie-like appearance puts it at number 5.
4. Eastern Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the smallest owl species in Wisconsin. They come in two colors or “morphs,” a camouflaged gray and a brighter orange. Eastern Screech Owls roost in cavities during the day and hunt for small animals at night. They can be seen sunning themselves at entrance of nest boxes and tree cavities on sunny days. During the night, Screech Owls have a very distinctive call that is known as a whinny and trill. This horse-like screaming can be creepy if someone was unfamiliar with the sound. The Eastern Screech Owl’s orange pumpkin morph and their haunting call puts them at number 4.
3. Northern Shrike
While at first glance the Northern Shrike looks like the typical song bird, this medium sized creature, it is a nightmare to any animal smaller than itself. Northern Shrikes are North America’s only predatory song bird. The Shrike uses its hooked bill and sharp claws to feast on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds. The fact that this bird is predatory is not why it makes the list but rather the way it stores its prey. The Shrike has a gruesome habit of skewering its prey (often when it’s still alive) on wires and thorns to save for later. The Shrike’s macabre food storage and deceptively cute appearance make it a unique addition to the list.
2. Great-horned Owl
Picture this, walking alone in the silent winter woods. From behind you a soft, deep hoot comes from the tree tops. Without a sound a large shadow sweeps by and suddenly vanishes. Due to its large size and frequent vocalizations during mating season, the Great-horned Owl is one of the most frequently encountered owls in Wisconsin. Their spooky call, large wingspan, and piercing eyes have led some to hypothesize that numerous crypto zoological sightings of winged creatures in North America are actually Great-horned Owls. In addition to their large, shadowy appearance, Great-horned Owls have a creepy habit. They tend to decapitate larger prey items (usually medium sized mammals such as rabbits). They also sometimes remove the limbs and crush the bones to make the deceased creature easier to carry. A study found that 60 percent of Great-horned Owl kills end up decapitated.
1. Common Raven
Quoth the Raven nevermore, stated famed poet Edger Allen Poe. The Raven can be found in the Northern part of Wisconsin and looks very similar to the American Crow. What sets the Raven apart is its significantly larger size, thick bill, wedge shaped tail, and gruff call. The Common Raven has long been a deep rooted symbol associated with intelligence, insincerity, and sometimes evil. Much like the raptors in Jurassic Park, Ravens have been known to hunt in pairs or small groups and have been tabbed as incredibly intelligent. They have followed humans throughout history waiting to try and find an easy meal. Due to the Raven’s intimidating stature and relation to death and darkness thanks to Edger Allen Poe, it takes the top spot in our countdown of Halloween birds in Wisconsin.
Think there are other birds that could also be on this list? Leave us a comment below.
On Saturday, I met Derek up at Horicon Marsh. Lately, the best shorebird habitat has been at Horicon and some rare species have been located. One of the rarest has been the a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that has been seen off and on for the past week. While the sandpiper didn’t make an appearance there was still plenty to see.
When I arrived on highway 49 I saw an incredibly large number of birds on the mudflats to the south. Many were too far out to identify, but some of the closer birds turned out to be decent finds. Some notables were Wilson’s Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and Short-billed Dowitchers.
On the north side of highway 49 were many Great Egrets and Great-blue Herons feeding on fish left behind by the drying water. Among the Egrets and Herons was a single Snowy Egret (a rare bird for the state with only a few reports each year). A few Least Sandpipers and Killdeer were also present.
After another quick scan of the south side oh 49 yielded no new birds, Derek headed out while I continued to the Auto Tour. I parked in the Auto Tour lot and walked down Old Marsh Road. Within 50 feet of walking I noticed a Least Bittern perched up on the reeds. This was the closest I had ever been to a Least Bittern so even though they aren’t rare it was a nice surprise. Farther down the road I added Sora, Virginia Rail, and Black Tern to my day list. On the way out of the auto tour I located a juvenile Common Gallinule.
Overall, I found several year birds with the Snowy Egret being the rarest. While the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper couldn’t be found, it was still a great day to be out.
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.
Today, Ryan and I got a late start to birding. We decided to star locally and we headed to one of our favorite spots: Retzer Nature Center. Our goal was to check if the Dickcissel had returned to the prairie. We arrived around 1 o’clock and started on our usual loop. At the pond was a single Green Heron perched on a log along with a couple of kids catching frogs. They didn’t seem to notice the Heron and the Heron did not seem disturbed by them. Further along the path were numerous Song Sparrows and American Goldfinches. We continued through the forest and found several black-capped Chickadees and American Robins. As we exited the forest and started on the edge habitat, several Indigo Buntings were calling and Tree Swallows flew overhead. The grass on the Oak was fairly tall but we did not hear any Henslow’s Sparrows or Dickcissel. After listening for about 10 minutes we continued up the hill and were amazed at the number of Bobolinks on the prairie making their metallic buzzing call. After stopping to appreciate them we continued our loop and ended up back at our car. It was fairly windy and there were gray clouds overhead most of the time, and we decided to head back home and check the birding reports.
When we got back home Ryan saw that Black-bellied Plovers, a Hudsonian Godwit, and Wilson’s Phalaropes were seen at Horicon Marsh. After some debate, we decided to take the hour and ten-minute drive up to the marsh in an attempt to see the birds. On the way, there was debate on which CDs to listen to and one missed exit but we eventually arrive around 4 o’clock. few stopped on Highway 49 and noticed there was a lot of shorebird activity. We pulled over and picked out Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt. We pulled up a little further and still didn’t see any sign of the Godwit but did pick out several Black-bellied Plovers. We pulled up even further (the good area was large) and eventually picked out the single Hudsonian Godwit searching for food! A new year bird for Ryan and I. There were many black terns flying around, and we were also able to find one White-rumped Sandpiper in the mix. Also present were Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and calling Sandhill Cranes.
We moved on to the other side of Highway 49 and noticed many Great Egrets. There were several photographers pulled over but it seemed like they weren’t looking at the Egrets. To our surprise there were 2 Ibis out in the field! We checked the faces to see what kind they were (Glossy or White-faced) and both seemed to be White-faced, one adult and one immature.
After observing the Ibis for a long time we headed to the auto tour and decided to walk Old Marsh Road to look for Least Bittern. With dark clouds looming overhead we cautiously walked out and noticed that there seemed to be many dried-up turtle eggs next to open holes in the ground. We weren’t sure if these were nests that had been predated or eggs that had simply hatched. Down the road, there were several flocks of White Pelicans, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Marsh Wrens. We traveled further than we originally planned, hoping to find some decent shorebird habitat but the water was too high. The only shorebird-like find was one Killdeer. On the way back we stopped to admire the call of a lunking American Bittern and one fly by Black-crowned Night Heron. We finished our loop on the auto tour noticing several American Coots, but not finding too much else. We made one more stop on Highway 49 and noticed one more Ibis and thought it must be a Glossy. Upon further observation it proved to be another White-faced, but we couldn’t be disappointed about seeing 3 Ibis on a trip where we didn’t expect to see any. We stopped one more time to admire the Hudsonian Godwit, Plovers, and Stilts before heading home, pleased with out day.
A lot of times birders like to write about the awesome birds they found and the glorious moments when they find the rarity they were chasing after. This is not one of those moments. For the past few days, Yellow-breasted Chats have been reported at in Milwaukee County. We had gone at least four times to various spots along the lake trying to relocate one of these birds but came up empty each time. One such location is Bender Park in Milwaukee.
With a Yellow-breasted Chat once again reported at bender Park I met Derek there in hopes of finally finding it. Derek got there before I did and informed me he had located a Northern Mockingbird, which is uncommon in Wisconsin. He hadn’t had any luck finding the Chat and told me that he had lost track of the Mockingbird as well. Nonetheless I met him there anyway hoping that four eyes on the dense bushes and open fields could turn up some good finds.
When I arrived there were many birds flitting about in the trees (mostly Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers) but there was no sign of Derek. I took it upon myself to follow an interesting call into the thicket for a while and felt foolish when it turned out to be a Brown Thrasher. After spending some time feeling disgusted with my lack of call identification skills I headed toward the open field to the lake. The Clay-colored Sparrows were buzzing. Other sparrow species including Song, and Savannah were working the edges of the cliffs along with Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I made my way back to the main path while Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds called all around me.
Eventually I was able to find Derek who was looking thoroughly defeated after once again having no luck with the Chat. We searched a while longer for either the Chat or the Mockingbird but had no luck. We were however able to pick up a Blackpoll Warbler and a Bobolink near the cliff edge.
We had given up our search and started back to our cars when something caught Derek’s eye. “Hey I think that’s it” he said very stoically. Suddenly he changed his mind and stated “no I think that’s something else” as if he didn’t want to get his hopes up. Suddenly with a flash of its wing we saw the characteristic white wing bars of a Northern Mockingbird. We admired the bird for a bit as it worked its way east flying from tree to tree. Eventually we headed back to our car feeling glad that our efforts had yielded something. Leave it to Derek to find a rare bird twice in one day.