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.
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.
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.
On our second day in Minnesota we ventured north in search of the elusive Boreal Chickadee. Our destination was the tiny town of Isabella where the highest congregation of e bird reports were. After a two hour drive, the clear skies of Duluth had given way to a windy blizzard.
We finally arrived at the Isabella Café where several reports of Boreal Chickadees had been logged. We walked around the café and saw some Black-capped Chickadees which gave us hope that Boreal Chickadees may not be far behind. We located two very friendly Gray Jays that came right up to us and ate scraps left out by the restaurant. A singing Pine Grosbeak flew in to check us out for a few minutes as well.
After failing to find what we were looking for we continued on the snow covered back roads of northern Lake County stopping and listening any time we found nice looking habitat. After many stops without hearing a sound, Derek spotted a Boreal Chickadee. We excitedly got out of the car and tried getting photos and videos of the fast moving chickadee. We noticed not one but two of them flitting around in the trees. Almost as soon as they had arrived, they departed back into the thick conifers.
We had to work extremely hard to find our target bird but on the way back we marveled at the fact that we were actually able to find not one but two of these birds. Overall, our trip to Minnesota went better than any of us had anticipated and we went home content with our weekend of birding.
Derek and I traveled to the legendary Sax Zim Bog for a weekend of birding with Bill, Alex, Barry, and Rob. The day started at 9pm on Friday when we met up with Bill and Barry and began the seven hour drive northeast.
Upon arriving we met up with Rob and Alex and waited for first light to signal the start of what would be one of the best birding days any of us had ever had. The action started almost immediately when we went to McDavitt road. We quickly spotted the silhouette of a Great Gray Owl (a bird most of us had never seen in real life). After watching the owl fly from tree to tree we moved on to check other stretches of road before day officially broke. We found another Great Gray but the lighting was still too dim to get a photo with any detail.
At the field where the Sharp-tailed Grouse were performing their courtship dance, several cars were already parked along the road side. We could see the grouse far out in the field but noticed that some of them were under a feeder closer to the road. These birds offered great looks as they fed. In addition to the grouse, Black-capped Chickadees and Common Redpolls were also visiting the feeders. On the other side of the road a Pine Grosbeak was calling from the top of a tree.
From the lek, we moved on to Warren Nelson Memorial Bog to search for woodpeckers. We walked on a trail worn in the snow by numerous people searching the forest. After walking a short distance we noticed a bird high in the tops of the pines. It turned out to be a Gray Jay, one of the most inquisitive birds in the forest. We pressed on and heard tapping on trees from time to time but couldn’t seen to peg down where it was coming from. With the cold starting to get to us we were about to turn back when Derek decided to go a ways further. He was able to locate the American Three-toed Woodpecker working its way up a tree. As we looked at it, three more Gray Jays flew in and watched us curiously. Shortly after, Rob was able to find a Black-backed Woodpecker on the trail and pointed it out to us.
After a quick lunch we went to Mary Lou’s feeding station where there were Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, and Evening Grosbeaks. The Evening Grosbeaks gave us great looks but the Pine Grosbeaks stayed relatively far away. From there, we went to the visitor center where we were able to pick out one Hoary Redpoll in large flock of Common Redpolls. On the way to the center we had a lucky sighting of a Black-billed Magpie flying over the road.
Feeling good about finding most of the birds we were looking for, we cruised along roads where Northern Hawk Owls had been seen. After an unsuccessful drive down Stone Lake Road, we saw cars parked along the roadside with people outside taking pictures. We rushed over to the group who was looking at a very well hidden Boreal Owl. We did our best to get a clear shot of the small bird through the thicket of branches it was nestled in.
After that, we went back down McDavitt Road where a different Hawk Owl had been spotted. We once again struck out but were able to find a very cooperative Great-gray Owl that perched on top of a tree and gave us fantastic looks before eventually flying further into the woods.
Later, we made one last effort to find a Northern Hawk Owl. We looked as hard as we could, checking the tree tops until the sun started to set. We gave up and started heading back to our hotel when we noticed the bird sitting on the peak of a deciduous tree. We excitedly got out and started taking pictures. All of the sudden, the bird took off and flew in a low bush across the road significantly closer to us than it had been before. After getting even more photos we were ecstatic about all of the different species we had seen. The only target bird we still needed was Boreal Chickadee. For that, we knew we would have to go even farther north. Overall, most of us ended up with several life birds and all had an incredible day birding.
In Port Washington, Wisconsin, warm outflow from the WE Energies power plant keeps the water in and around the harbor open year round, even in the harshest of winter temperatures. The open water combined with an annual die off of Gizzard Shad create a literal and figurative hotspot for bird activity.
Getting to Know the Area
The Port Washington lake front is divided into different areas with each offering something slightly different in terms of bird habitat. The marina is lined with a break wall on all sides with a small opening to the east. This wall provides a great place for wintering gulls such as Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland gulls. In addition to gulls, Snowy Owls have also been known to station themselves on the large rocks of the break wall.
To the north of the marina inside of the break wall is a small sandy area where geese tend to congregate. Other than the many Canada Geese that reside in this area, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross’s Geese also make an occasional appearance. Just south of this area is open water amongst the piers. In this location, waterfowl are very active as the docks provide some cover.
South of the piers is where most of the birds can be found. Just north of Coal Dock Park is the most open water inside of the break wall. Here, Red-throated Loons can be found as well as American Black Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, and many other migratory species. East of coal dock park is a smaller section of open water surrounded on all sides by rocks. This section of the marina is connected to a canal that comes directly from the power plant. Many water birds enjoy this location as the water remains open and warm. Farther south is a bird sanctuary with a trail leading around the perimeter of the grounds. This sanctuary is home to American Tree Sparrows as well as other sparrow species in spring, summer, and fall.
What to Look For
While the waters around Port Washington Harbor provide a haven for birds year round, the winter months are when the harbor becomes most alive with bird activity. The combination of wintering and migrating waterfowl along with winter gulls. Numerous seasonal rarities have already been reported this year. When visiting, be on the look out for the following species:
While the weather is still cold, Port Washington harbor will remain a great place to bird. Eventually, as winter melts into spring, many of the winter birds residing in the harbor will move on and more migratory species will move through. If you’re in need of some waterfowl or gulls to add to your year list, it’s definitely the place to be so far in 2018.
Each winter, the search for food drives birds from the north woods into areas south of their summer range. This winter migration brings many new species within view of birders who eagerly search them out. One such species that makes this journey is the Common Redpoll. Common Redpolls are small, colorful finches that eat seeds and often show up at bird feeders.
While Common Redpolls can be scarce in certain years, another Redpoll species is even harder to find: The Hoary Redpoll. Hoary Redpolls look incredibly similar to Common Redpolls and they often flock together. In fact, they look so much alike that there has been talk about lumping them together into one species. For now, however, the two remain separate, and some key identification features can help to tell them apart.
While both birds have very small, triangular-shaped bills, the bill of the Common Redpoll is slightly larger. Hoary Redpolls will have a shorter bill than a Common Redpoll that will appear stubbier and more pushed in.
One of the most notable differences between the two species is the streaking on the chest. Common Redpolls have chest streaking that is more defined than in Hoary Redpolls. They also have bold streaking on the flanks, along with streaking on the rump and undertail coverts, which is either absent or subtle in Hoary Redpolls. Note the differences in the photos below with the heavy streaking on the Common Redpoll (Top Left and Top Right) vs. the Hoary Redpoll’s lack of streaking (Bottom Left and Bottom Right).
Common Redpoll’s streaked undertail coverts
Common Redpoll’s streaked rump
Hoary Redpoll’s white undertail coverts
Hoary Redpoll’s white rump
Crown and Chest
Another distinguishing characteristic of Redpolls are their red coloring on the crown and chest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls display bright red crowns, however the Hoary Redpoll’s crown is smaller and primarily at the front of the head, whereas the Common’s crown will extend back further. Additionally, the male Common Redpolls will have more red on their chest compared to the male Hoary Redpoll, which may have only washed out red coloration on the chest, or almost no red.
All in all, the Common Redpoll has a body coloration ranging from tan to brown, compared to the “frosted” and muted browns seen in Hoary Redpolls. The red on the breast of the males is typically more apparent in Common Redpolls, as is the red on the crown. When compared with Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls sometimes look like they are in black and white other than their darker red crown.
With winter approaching, these birds will start to pop up in local parks and bird feeders. Finding a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons can prove a difficult task to the untrained birder. Hopefully these ID tips can help you differentiate between the two species.
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.