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.

 

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The Silver Lining of Failing to Find a Chat

A lot of times birders like to write about the awesome birds they found and the glorious moments when they find the rarity they were chasing after. This is not one of those moments. For the past few days, Yellow-breasted Chats have been reported at in Milwaukee County. We had gone at least four times to various spots along the lake trying to relocate one of these birds but came up empty each time. One such location is Bender Park in Milwaukee.

With a Yellow-breasted Chat once again reported at bender Park I met Derek there in hopes of finally finding it. Derek got there before I did and informed me he had located a Northern Mockingbird, which is uncommon in Wisconsin. He hadn’t had any luck finding the Chat and told me that he had lost track of the Mockingbird as well. Nonetheless I met him there anyway hoping that four eyes on the dense bushes and open fields could turn up some good finds.

When I arrived there were many birds flitting about in the trees (mostly Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers) but there was no sign of Derek. I took it upon myself to follow an interesting call into the thicket for a while and felt foolish when it turned out to be a Brown Thrasher. After spending some time feeling disgusted with my lack of call identification skills I headed toward the open field to the lake. The Clay-colored Sparrows were buzzing. Other sparrow species including Song, and Savannah were working the edges of the cliffs along with Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I made my way back to the main path while Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds called all around me.

Eventually I was able to find Derek who was looking thoroughly defeated after once again having no luck with the Chat. We searched a while longer for either the Chat or the Mockingbird but had no luck. We were however able to pick up a Blackpoll Warbler and a Bobolink near the cliff edge.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

We had given up our search and started back to our cars when something caught Derek’s eye. “Hey I think that’s it” he said very stoically. Suddenly he changed his mind and stated “no I think that’s something else” as if he didn’t want to get his hopes up. Suddenly with a flash of its wing we saw the characteristic white wing bars of a Northern Mockingbird. We admired the bird for a bit as it worked its way east flying from tree to tree. Eventually we headed back to our car feeling glad that our efforts had yielded something. Leave it to Derek to find a rare bird twice in one day.

Isabella, Minnesota: Search for the Boreal Chickadee

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.

As we drove the back roads we saw few birds other than a few Black-capped Chickadees, American Crows, and Common Ravens. We did have an exciting sighting of a pure white Snowshoe Hair which most of us had never seen before.

Gray Jay
Gray Jay

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.

Sax Zim Bog 2018

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.

As the sun rose high enough to give better views of our surroundings we headed to a known Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. On our way we encountered several American Crows, Common Ravens and a Northern Shrike perched high up in a tree. On a road a bit closer to the leking site we encountered another Great Gray Owl and a Ruffed Grouse.

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.

American Three-toed Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker

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.

 

P1350387
Boreal Owl

 

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.

Northern Hawk Owl
Northern Hawk Owl

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.

Port Washington Harbor/Coal Dock Park

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

Slaty-backed Gull
Slaty-backed Gull

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:

Slaty-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Snowy Owl
Harlequin Duck
Long-tailed Duck
White-winged Scoter
Red-throated Loon

What it Means

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.

Common Redpoll vs. Hoary Redpoll

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.

Bill

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.

Streaking

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).

 

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.

Overall Appearance

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.

Haory Redpoll photos by Ryan Brady

 

Top 10 Birds to look for this Winter

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.

10. Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill
Red Crossbill

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.

9. Dark-eyed Junco

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.

8. Bohemian Waxwing

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.

To learn more about Bohemian Waxwings check out the Boreal Birding video starting at 6:10.

7. Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck

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.

6. Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle

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.

5. Slaty-backed Gull

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.

4. Snowy Owl

 

snowy
Snowy Owl

 

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.

3. Townsend’s Solitaire

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.

2. Black-backed Woodpecker

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.

1.  Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

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.