The Ultimate Wisconsin Winter Grebe Guide

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.

Large Grebes

Western Grebe

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)

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.

Medium-Large Grebes

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked_Grebe
Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

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.

Small Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

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.

Horned Grebe in transitional plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom)

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

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.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

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.

Bill: Small, thick, triangle-shaped, yellow-brown bill.

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.

 

Photo Credit (Under Wikimedia Creative Commons License)
Red-necked Grebe photo by Ken Janes
Close up Horned Grebe by Mike Baird
Eared Grebe photo by Becky Matsubara
All other photos by Ryan or Derek Sallmann

 

 

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Migrants at Harrington Beach State Park

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.

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Waves on Lake Michigan

From the beach we went up the coast and had some success looking up into the trees where Yellow-rumped Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets were hopping from branch to branch. Also in the trees close to the lake were several Dark-eyed Juncos.

As we moved farther inland, a different variety of birds were foraging. Hermit thrushes were hopping along the ground along with flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows. I checked each bird I could see in hopes of finding a rare Harris’s Sparrow but had no luck.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

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.

American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

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.

Boston Commons Birding

Badgerland Birding has officially reached the east coast. Boston, Massachusetts to be more specific. Even in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world there are birds to be found. Yesterday I stopped at the Boston Commons and Boston Public Gardens in search of some possible early migrants. The Boston Commons and Public Gardens are essentially the closest thing the city has to New York’s Central Park where there are ponds, grass, and trees. The two areas make up one large section of greenery in a sea of human civilization and are separated by a single road running in between.

House Sparrows
House Sparrows

The first birds I noticed were classic big city birds: The Rock Pigeon. These birds can be found all over the city and fly from building to building  searching for scraps of food. Two other feral species were also present in large numbers, the European Starling and the House Sparrow. These three species easily made up over 75 percent of the individual birds in the Commons but there were some other more natural species as well. In the Public Garden the high pitched call of Cedar Waxwings could be heard. In the trees near the Waxwings were some warblers including Yellow, Black-and-white, and two feisty Common Yellowthroats that kept chasing Common Grackles away from their tree.

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

The trees where most of the birds were congregating surrounded a lagoon that also played host to many birds. Most of the birds on the water were Mallards but some Double-crested Cormorants were able to find spots to dry their wings. Also in the area was a single Mute Swan. The swan didn’t appear injured but was still on the lagoon later in the day so it may be a regular visitor.

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant

Late in the day when the sun was starting to go down, I went back to look at some of the monuments and statues near the lagoon and the garden was buzzing with the chattering of hundreds of Chimney Swifts flying overhead.

Boston Public Gardens
Boston Public Gardens

Overall, the birds at the Boston Commons and the Boston Public Gardens were numerous, but the diversity was lacking. The area provides a stop for migrant birds flying over stretches of city and creates a permanent home for other birds more accustomed to urbanization.

 

Top 5 Most Annoying Things That Can Happen On Your Birding Trip

Birding is a great thing. It takes people to places they wouldn’t normally go to see and lets people get in touch with the natural world. While birding can be extremely fun, there are some annoying things that can happen when birding. Here are the top five most annoying things that happen when birding for photographers and birders alike.

5. The Bird Won’t Sit Still

We’ve all been there. The Golden-crowned Kinglet was perched out in the open, on the branch overhanging the creek. Light shimmering down illuminate the colors on the top of the head in just the perfect way. Just as you press the button to take the shot, into the brush he goes. You spend the next twenty minutes trying to get a nice picture but end up with only blurry, obscured photos, and a solid “butt-shot.” But you’re also convinced the next picture will be “the one”.

4. Empid Flycatchers

Even if you get a perfect picture of it, you still may not be able to tell exactly what species it is without hearing it call.

3. When The Bugs Are So Bad It Ruins Your Trip

It’s almost impossible to enjoy a birding trip when a million things are buzzing in your ear, dive bombing your head, and/or biting you. If you see the bird you’re looking for it’s worth it. If you don’t, you never want to go outside again.

2. YOU FORGOT YOUR SD CARD (or other piece of valuable equipment)

You finally get to your favorite shorebird spot and can see the hundreds of peeps moving around way out there. Time to get out the trusty scope. Uh oh…Why is it not in the back seat? You always double check that you have everything, but today you were so excited that you forgot! What a horrible day. (Or you just didn’t have your camera on you when that Northern Goshawk swoops in and sits for 10 minutes on the branch in front of you). No way your friends are gonna believe this one.

1. When You “Just Missed It”

Everyone’s been here before. You drive 6 hours to see a rare bird only to be told “it was just here 5 minutes ago, I’m sure it will come back”. But it never does. The group who had been watching it for the past hour is laughing and joking and having a grand old time while you sit there in silence, knowing if you’d skipped having that bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios this morning, you would have seen the dang thing. You drive home wondering “what could have been.”

Is there anything about birding that annoys you that we didn’t list? Mention it in the comments below.

 

Brothertown Cattle Egrets

Last Wednesday while staying on the west side of Lake Winnebago, Derek and I decided  to take the half hour trip around the lower part of the lake to look for Cattle Egrets. Cattle Egrets technically are not considered rare for this part of the state but they can be tough to find some years.Fortunately, our girlfriends also agreed to join us in our search.

We turned onto lake shore drive where most of the sightings occur and almost immediately spotted a single Cattle Egret in a grassy field to the north of the road. It seemed to be content to sit by the small creek running through grass. We spent some time watching it and listening to a calling Eastern Wood-Peewee before moving on to see if we could find more.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret

We continued down the road in the direction of some large groups of cows hoping we could find egrets following close behind. We struck out on more egrets but we did find a field with about 200 Ring-billed Gulls and a weird looking hawk that was most likely a juvenile Red-tailed.

We were about to turn around and head back when my girlfriend Bri (aka the worlds greatest egret spotter) noticed some small white shapes in the distance way off to the south east. We immediately got excited when we noticed a crass street that could take us right next to where this group of egrets were. We became even more excited when we saw 12 of them all at close range associating with the cattle.

Cattle Egrets
Cattle Egrets

We had a great time watching them lurk around the cattle and pick insects and other items up from the weeds. Occasionally they would take flight and relocate further down the field, but they would always return to the cows.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret in tall grass

It’s always hard to rip yourself away from cool birds but we wanted to give them some space so we took off back to the house on the west side of the lake feeling great about our close up sighting.

Horicon Marsh In August

Derek and I met up at Horicon Marsh to see if we could find any cool wetland birds before they head south for the winter. We started out at Marsh Haven Nature Center to look around a bit before venturing into the marsh. We saw a juvenile Chipping Sparrow at the feeders and the usual Purple Martins chattering above the Martin houses.

Next, we started on the Auto Tour loop. I thought the loop could take us an hour or maybe an hour and a half if we walked some of the trails. We were breezing through it as the first pond contained a few ducks and some Great Egrets. However, when we got to Old Marsh Road we got out and started walking the trail east.

Great Egret
Great Egret

We immediately saw some common birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches. after a few hundred yards onto the road we started seeing usual marsh suspects such as Pied-Billed Grebes and Wood Ducks. These were two of the most numerous species on the trail. In the watery areas to the north we located more Wood Ducks and an American Coot family with parents and young. Farther down we heard the call of a Virginia Rail that we were unfortunately never able to get a visual of. All the while, Marsh Wrens made their clattering noise from the tall reeds.

Pied-Billed Grebe
Pied-Billed Grebe

We continued on and came to the only shaded spot on the trail where we took a minute to relax before continuing. From this location east, the water opened up more and we saw gulls and American White Pelicans and a family of Common Gallinules. We were hoping to see a Least Bittern in this area as I saw one there last year. We got excited for a second as a small bird took off from the shoreline nearest to us and headed out to the opposite bank but it turned out to be one of three Spotted Sandpipers in the vicinity.

American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans

We turned the corner of the trail and went south for a short while. Suddenly, a small heron-like bird flew across the trail directly in front of us. It was a Least Bittern! It reached the reed line and vanished completely. I was able to get a blurry photo of its back but that was it.

From there we continued to follow the road when it turned east again and revealed drying mud flats. Canada Geese and Killdeer were numerous in this location and it was the best shorebird habitat we had seen to that point. there was a large flock of peeps that flew low over the mud but basically disappeared from our view somewhere out in the mud where we couldn’t see them. We happened upon several Least Sandpipers and a Stilt Sandpiper close to the path. Out in the tall grass was a weird looking bird that seemed to ungracefully walk through the weeds. At first I thought it was another Stilt Sandpiper but it turned out to be a non breeding plumage Wilson’s Phalarope. I had never seen one out of the water before so it was a unique experience for me.

Wilson's Phalarope

We figured it was time to head back to the car since we’d already spent about an hour and a half on Old Marsh Road Alone. On the way we stopped and scanned for the Least Bittern. Derek was able to pick it out on the opposite shore (an impressive feat). This was the first time we were ever able to get a recognizable photo of one before even though it was long range. We also noticed a few Yellow-Headed Blackbirds on the way back. Most of them seemed to have moved on already so we were happy to find a few left.

Least Bittern
Least Bittern

After a long walk back we cruised through the rest of the auto tour and headed over to 49. We stopped near a parched Double-Crested Cormorant and were flagged down by another birder. They pointed out four Trumpeter Swans extremely close to the road. This was the Trumpeter Swan family that people had been watching all year with two adults and two cygnets. They seemed to have no worries about people being within 20 feet of them. Also on 49 were several Black Terns and Swamp Sparrows.

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan

With it starting to get late in the day we made our last stop at Point Road which is the other end of Old Marsh Road. We were hoping to see some Black-Necked Stilts the had been reported their earlier but we had no luck. There were some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs but otherwise, the shorebirds were few and far between. The highlight of this location was a Sora that popped out at close range for a few minutes. These birds aren’t rare but they are elusive and tough to get a good look at.

Sora
Sora

In all, our trip was a success finding the Least Bittern and the Wilson’s Phalarope along with some of the usual suspects. We may be making another trip or two out there as summer turns into fall and more shorebirds come through, assuming some habitat develops.

 

Birds Of Lake Winnebago

We took a family trip out to the western shores of Lake Winnebago in Fond Du Lac County. Of course, we were keeping an eye out for birds.

House Finch
House Finch

When we went out in the back yard of house we were staying at we immediately started seeing birds. In the trees near the water there House Finches and a single Warbling Vireo. Foraging along the ground were House Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and American Robins. For a few minutes a Spotted Sandpiper also made a brief appearance on the lawn.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo

Out over the water there were plenty of Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. Every so often the majestic American White Pelicans flew over or sometimes even landed within 50 feet of the shore. The raspy call of the Forster’s Tern could also be heard from time to time as groups of them flew past.

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American White Pelicans

Some of the most interesting birds to watch were the many swallows swirling around our dock. To the south, Purple Martins could be heard and sometimes seen. From the north, Northern Roughed-winged Swallows flew threw, and just one dock away a colony of Barn Swallows gathered and dispersed every fifteen minutes or so. At the end of the day we were mesmerized by the swallows swooping just inches away from the water’s surface with the sunset colors in the background.

Barn Swallows
Barn Swallows

It was a decent birding day given the fact that we weren’t specifically trying to bird. We’ll see if we can find anything else interesting the rest of the week. Stay tuned.