Bald Eagle: Back from the brink

As far as birds go, there is none more iconic in the United States than the bald eagle. Known as a symbol of freedom, grace, and perseverance, America’s national bird can be seen regularly in most parts of the country; but this wasn’t always the case. Not too long ago, the Bald Eagle was critically endangered and at serious risk of becoming extinct. This is the story of how this regal raptor came back from the brink.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s Decline?

In North America, eagles have always been associated with positive traits. So much so, that in 1782, the Bald Eagle was adopted as a National Symbol of the United States. Even with this bird being a national icon, at this time in history, there was a lot of misinformation about their habits and lifestyle. We now know that this species feeds mostly on fish and carrion, but at earlier eras there was a wide held belief that eagles were a threat to medium sized livestock and even children. As a result, many Bald Eagles were hunted by landowners fearful of losing animals to the large birds. In addition, much of the bald eagles natural prey was also on the decline due to hunting and habitat loss. However, hunting and habitat loss were not the only factors leading to the bald eagle’s decline.

Serious trouble came in the form of a new pesticide called DDT. After World War II, DDT was commonly used to eliminate insect pests such as mosquitos but caused a lot of collateral damage. The chemical would then wash into waterways, fouling entire waterways, including the things that lived in that water. This meant that fish and other animals that Bald Eagles feed on were not only scarcer due to hunting and habitat loss, but also contaminated with toxins. Eagles would consume the contaminated fish and absorb the DDT into their bodies. While DDT wasn’t fatal to the adult Eagles, it was the bird’s eggs that were most adversely effected. The ingestion and absorption of DDT by the adult birds led to the inability to produce strong eggs. As a result, many Bald Eagle eggs were crushed or cracked during incubation leading to a grave amount of unsuccessful broods.

Due to a combination of chemical poisoning, hunting, and habitat destruction, the Bald Eagle was quickly approaching the point of extinction. In 1963, there were a mere 487 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s comeback?

Recognizing that the Bald Eagle was losing its battle against extinction, the US government stepped in to try and aid in its plight. In 1972 DDT was banned in large part to its negative impact of wildlife (particularly birds), and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was created. The endangered species prevented habitat destruction as well as the harassment or killing of any species deemed endangered. These steps in addition to reintroduction, nest monitoring projects, and water quality improvement put the Bald Eagle on a pathway to move out of the precarious place they were in as a species.

How is the Bald Eagle doing today?

In the following decades, the Bald Eagle’s numbers began climbing. In 1995 they were moved from the endangered species list and designated as threatened. Twelve years later The Bald Eagle was officially completely delisted on June 28th 2007. Now, over 70,000 pairs of Bald Eagles live in the lower 48 states and the species as a whole is listed as a species of “least concern.”

The Bald Eagle is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. With a very stable population of this species in the wild today, this regal national symbol will continue to soar the skies of American for generations to come. Hopefully more success stories like the Bald Eagle will emerge in the ecological war against extinction, and we will get to discuss more birds that have come back from the brink

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

Cackling Goose vs. Canada Goose

Almost everyone is familiar with the loud and abundant Canada Goose. Even non birders can pick out the familiar brown bodied, black and white faced bird best known for it’s v-shaped migratory pattern and its reputation for being easily irritated by passers by. However, there is another bird closely resembling the Canada Goose that makes its way across North America during migration: The Cackling Goose.

The Cackling Goose looks extremely similar to the Canada Goose. So similar in fact, that it was originally listed as a Canada Goose subspecies. Eventually, it was determined that the Cackling Goose was different enough to warrant its own species distinction. There are now 7 subspecies of Canada Geese and 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose with each subspecies having subtle differences. While at first glance, the two species are tough to tell apart, there are a some diagnostic characteristics that make differentiating the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose much easier.

Size

Cackling Geese
Looking at the image, the petit stature of the 3 Cackling Geese in front of the many Canada Geese is obvious

One of the most noticeable differences between the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose is overall size. The Canada Goose is by far larger with an average length of 76-110 cm and wing span of 127-170 cm compared the Cackling Goose’s much daintier 63-65 cm length and 108-111 cm wingspan. When standing side by side the difference is obvious with the Cackling Goose being closer in size to a Mallard than to a Canada Goose. However, the issue is that a direct comparison is not always possible. In addition, larger subspecies of Cackling Goose can be close to the size of a smaller subspecies of Canada Goose. For this reason, size alone is not always reliable.

Bill

The next distinguishing feature to note is the bill. The Canada Goose’s bill is long and gently sloping to give it a more pointed appearance. The Cackling Goose’s bill is stubbier and slopes down more rapidly; giving it a more triangular appearance. The Cackling Goose’s shorter bill is one of the key features that can be diagnostic in the field even when there are no Canada Geese nearby to compare with.

Neck

Canada Geese
This image shows how deceptive size and neck length can be. Both of these birds are Canada Geese but the bird in front looks a bit smaller and is not elongating its neck. However, the bills on both birds are nearly identical.

Much like bill length, neck length is also a key feature that differs in the two species. The Canada Goose has a comparatively longer neck than the short neck of the Cackling Goose. Even when fully extended, the Cackling Goose will still appear to have a shorter neck. This feature can be slightly deceptive as Canada Geese can appear to have short necks when they are resting and length can be largely dependent of position of the bird..

Other Features

There are a few other less noticeable features that differentiate the species as well. One thing to look for is primary projection. The wing tips of the Canada Goose typically do not stretch as far beyond the rump as those of the cackling Goose. This gives the Cackling Goose a slightly more elegant appearance.

The size and shape of the head can also be used as a diagnostic tool. The Canada Goose’s head is larger and has a more gentle sloped angle from the back of the head to the front. The Cackling Goose has a smaller and more rounded head.

Review

Cackling Geese
Here is a good comparison to note all ID features of the Cackling Goose. The two birds in the middle of the image are smaller in size with stubby necks, stubby bills, rounded heads, and slightly longer primary feathers than the Canada Geese around them.

Canada Goose

Larger Size
Long pointed bill
Long neck
Shorter primary projection
Flatter sloping head

Cackling Goose

Smaller size
Short, stubby, triangular bill
Short neck
Longer primary projection
Small rounded head

Canada Goose vs. Cackling Goose can certainly be a challenging ID. Since most of the differentiating features are comparative, it can especially difficult to make an identification when there are no other birds around for perspective. With both species varying wildly in size due to many subspecies, no one characteristic should be used to disseminate the two. Instead, all characteristics together can help paint a clearer picture of which birds are Canada Geese and which are Cackling Geese.

Why the House Sparrow should be the USA’s National Bird

There are few symbols that represent the United States of America better than the Bald Eagle. The image of a soaring eagle is emblematic of freedom, courage, and bravery. While the Bald Eagle has long been accepted as the best choice to represent our country, it has not been without its detractors. Founding Father Ben Franklin had a famous distaste for eagles, once stating this in a letter:

“For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. “

If not the Bald Eagle, then what other bird could possibly be suited for this proud nation? According to lore, Franklin preferred the Wild Turkey as the bird to best represent the United States as he viewed the species as intelligent and cunning. However, there could be one often overlooked species that would be an even better fit: The House Sparrow.

Before angrily closing your laptop, hear me out on this one. The much maligned House Sparrow may have more in common with Americans than first meets the eye.

Shared History

The ancestors of House Sparrows living in the United States today were not native to North America, but rather introduced in 1851 in Brooklyn New York. They were introduced again in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s. They found this new habitat suitable and by 1900 had made their way across the entire mainland USA with populations stretching from coastline to coastline.

It’s easy to have ill feelings toward a species that inhabits a land that was not their own,  but then again most of our ancestors arrived from other countries as well. Much like the adventurous House Sparrow, many immigrants arrived in New York and California to start their new lives in the United States. The first immigrants that arrived in the United States in 1620 initially struggled in their quest to find a better life. Eventually, their descendants along with other immigrants expanded westward, and much like the House Sparrow began to thrive. As new Americans moved across the nation, so did the House Sparrow, often prospering in areas already inhabited by humans.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

Shared Habitat

While most native species spend their time away from human activity, House Sparrows thrive in it. Like other non-native species such as European Starlings and Pigeons, House Sparrows can be found near almost any man-made structure including houses, bridges, brush piles and many more. House Sparrows not only live with humans but also dine with them, frequently eating discarded food scraps and utilizing backyard bird feeders. The fact that these birds have found a way to live right alongside people sets them apart from many other species that inhabit North America.

Well we’d like to believe that we are adventurous and prefer to be exploring the outdoors, in reality, most of us prefer our comfortable nests in the city. This is also true of the House Sparrow as they actually prefer to utilize man-made structures and birdhouses rather than natural tree cavities.

Shared Characteristics

House Sparrows have a habit of being quite nasty to other species. While nesting they will harass any other bird that gets close to their nest and even violently attack nesting birds in an attempt to evict them from nest holes that they want. Many nature enthusiasts harbor disdain for House Sparrows because of this brash aggression toward anything that flies. Bird lovers also despise them due to their tendency to displace native species. However, as human habitation continues to infringe on natural areas it becomes clear that we may have more in common with House Sparrows than we’d like to believe. In 2009 there were nearly 2,000 species of plants and animals listed as endangered in North America. Most of those have habitat loss noted as the primary reason.

Though it’s easy to dwell on the negative correlations between House Sparrows and Americans, there are many things to be proud of when it comes to this bird. They are very social, living in groups communicating with each other often. They display great courage in the face of much larger enemies and fiercely defend their families. They are resilient and adaptive and have found a way to proliferate an entire continent. While the House Sparrow may be a nuisance to other bird species, they do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of their own species. Surely that is found in human beings as well.

Final Thoughts

The House Sparrow is an impressively adaptive species that carved out a niche for itself in a land it didn’t originally belong in. They have successfully found a way to co-exist with human beings and have withstood the freezing winters and harsh summers of the North America to live in nearly every state. The House Sparrows defends itself and its family with courage and ferocity even in the face of a much larger foe.

While the House Sparrow gets a bad rap, If one looks below the surface, it’s easy to see ourselves in this species even if we don’t want to admit it. This little bird has beaten the odds; ascending beyond its small stature to become a fixture in many North American environments. With a story similar to our own, this formerly European species is now just as American as we are. For that reason, the House Sparrow would be the perfect National bird for the United States.

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.