Hairy Woodpecker vs. Downy Woodpecker

Hopping up and down trees across North America are two very similar woodpecker species: the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. Both are black and white with almost identical patterns, and both can be found in the same habitat. At first glance it may seem impossible to tell these two birds apart, but upon closer inspection there are some tell tale differences that birders can use to make a positive identification.

Size

The first thing that helps to differentiate these species is size. The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the downy with an average length of 18-26cm and a wingspan of 33-41cm. The Downy Woodpecker measures in at 14-18cm long on average and a wingspan of 25-30cm. This means that the Hairy Woodpecker is approximately one third bigger than a Downy Woodpecker and is about the size of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in size. While size isn’t always the most reliable tool when identifying a species, the difference between these two birds is fairly substantial.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Bill Length

The second and possibly best way to tell the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker is by looking at the bill. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill that is about equal in size to the length of the head. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter more triangular bill about one third to one half the size of the length of the bird’s head. Bill size comparison is much easier than overall size comparison when there are no direct comparisons available in the field.

 

Hairy Woodpecker
Note the long bill and clean outer tail feathers of this Hairy Woodpecker

Field Markings

There are two field markings that can be used to separate the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker. The first is a comma mark that goes from the shoulder to the breast. This marking is seen most prominently on the Hairy Woodpecker and is often not visible at all on the Downy. The second marking to look for is the black barring on the white other tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker that the Hairy Woodpecker lacks. While at a distance these two things can be hard to spot, closer up or with optics, both field markings can be used to differentiate these two woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker
Note the small bill, lack of extended “comma” mark and barring on the outer tail feathers of this Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Larger size
Longer bill
Defined comma marking
Pure white outer tail feathers

Downy Woodpecker

Smaller size
Short triangular bill
Less defined or non existent comma marking
Black barring on outer tail feathers

Although these birds have strikingly similar color patterns and behaviors, with the right knowledge they can be very easy to tell apart. We hope this post was helpful, follow our blog and give us a like of Facebook and Youtube

Incredibly Rare Hammond’s Flycatcher

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.

Iowa County
Sun shines through the fog in Iowa County, WI

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.

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

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.

How I’ve Failed at Birding in 2018

Last week I woke up feeling the need to go birding. Admittedly, I hadn’t been birding as often this year as I would have liked. I was set to go to Madison that day to drop Derek off for a show he was playing and wanted to see what birds I could find in the area. I logged onto ebird and pulled up the ole’ year needs alert. I was horrified at what I saw. Common Loon, Snow Goose, Bonaparte’s Gull, Winter Wren?! What have I been doing this year?

With a sense of urgency, Derek and I made a stop at Tenney Park Dam on Lake Mendota and quickly located two Common Loons out in the waves. Relief rushed over me as I checked at least one ridiculous missing species off my year list. No less than five minutes later a Bonaparte’s Gull flew into view. Number two checked off the list.

Later that night I viewed my now slightly smaller needs list. I made it a goal to try and find those common species I was still missing to end the year on a high note.

A week later I crossed off Snow Goose as one turned up at Greenfield Park in West Allis. With three down I felt fueled in my quest to locate my missing common year birds. Here are the species I will be searching for the rest of the year:

Surf Scoter – Understandable
Black Scoter – Should be more to come
Canvasback – How?
Merlin – Can be tricky and viewing is often incidental
Winter Wren – Absurd
Tundra Swan – It’s like I don’t bird during migration
Barred Owl – I clearly haven’t tried
Eastern Screech Owl – I should just ask a photag
Ring-necked Pheasant – Do I even go outside?
Rusty Blackbird – Declining species, giving myself a pass

I will be looking for these species in the coming months and reporting back with my sightings. Leave a comment with the common birds you still need this year or anything else you consider a 2018 birding fail.

Disclaimer: Just to be clear, the definitions of birding success and failure depend on the individual. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen some of the birds I am considering common. We all share the joy of birding which in itself is a big win.

Top 6 Halloween Birds That Live In Wisconsin

The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and everything is just a little spookier. Halloween is fast approaching, and with it come many natural representations of the holiday. Whether its bats, black cats, or pumpkins that get you in the mood for Halloween, there’s no question that this holiday is strongly tied to the flora and fauna of the fall.

Along with the traditional Halloween animals, Wisconsin plays host to several birds that could also serve as creepy additions to your Halloween. Whether it’s due to their coloring, habits, or association to darkness, these six birds embody the spirit of October’s holiday.

6. American Crow

The American Crow is one of the most intelligent and least appreciated birds in Wisconsin. They can be found in a variety of habitats and can often be seen soaring over highways and perching in dead trees. They eat a wide variety of foods and frequent garbage cans and other locations they can find discarded scraps. The American Crow is closely associated with darkness due to their preferred habitat being open fields and other places where little grows, inquisitive personalities, and dark coloration. Their caw evokes images of walking into dark woods as night falls. Their black color, desolate imagery, and cunning intelligence lands the American Crow at number 6 in the countdown.

5. Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture

Soaring in at number five in the count down is the Turkey Vulture. Turkey Vultures feed mostly on carrion, using their extremely powerful sense of smell to locate dead animals. There is possibly no harbinger of death better known than the vulture. They are often represented in media as a sign that a person or animal is about to die as the vultures circle above in anticipation of a meal. The Turkey Vultures reddish-pink head is featherless so rotting meat doesn’t get stuck in their feathers when eating rotted flesh. This bald, skeletal looking head makes this bird look even creepier as it flies low over the landscape literally trying to smell dead meat. The Turkey Vulture’s association with death and zombie-like appearance puts it at number 5.

4. Eastern Screech Owl

The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the smallest owl species in Wisconsin. They come in two colors or “morphs,” a camouflaged gray and a brighter orange. Eastern Screech Owls roost in cavities during the day and hunt for small animals at night. They can be seen sunning themselves at entrance of nest boxes and tree cavities on sunny days. During the night, Screech Owls have a very distinctive call that is known as a whinny and trill. This horse-like screaming can be creepy if someone was unfamiliar with the sound. The Eastern Screech Owl’s orange pumpkin morph and their haunting call puts them at number 4.

3. Northern Shrike

While at first glance the Northern Shrike looks like the typical song bird, this medium sized creature, it is a nightmare to any animal smaller than itself. Northern Shrikes are North America’s only predatory song bird. The Shrike uses its hooked bill and sharp claws to feast on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds. The fact that this bird is predatory is not why it makes the list but rather the way it stores its prey. The Shrike has a gruesome habit of skewering its prey (often when it’s still alive) on wires and thorns to save for later. The Shrike’s macabre food storage and deceptively cute appearance make it a unique addition to the list.

2. Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl
Great-horned Owl

Picture this, walking alone in the silent winter woods. From behind you a soft, deep hoot comes from the tree tops. Without a sound a large shadow sweeps by and suddenly vanishes. Due to its large size and frequent vocalizations during mating season, the Great-horned Owl is one of the most frequently encountered owls in Wisconsin. Their spooky call, large wingspan, and piercing eyes have led some to hypothesize that numerous crypto zoological sightings of winged creatures in North America are actually Great-horned Owls. In addition to their large, shadowy appearance, Great-horned Owls have a creepy habit. They tend to decapitate larger prey items (usually medium sized mammals such as rabbits). They also sometimes remove the limbs and crush the bones to make the deceased creature easier to carry. A study found that 60 percent of Great-horned Owl kills end up decapitated.

1. Common Raven

Quoth the Raven nevermore, stated famed poet Edger Allen Poe. The Raven can be found in the Northern part of Wisconsin and looks very similar to the American Crow. What sets the Raven apart is its significantly larger size, thick bill, wedge shaped tail, and gruff call. The Common Raven has long been a deep rooted symbol associated with intelligence, insincerity, and sometimes evil. Much like the raptors in Jurassic Park, Ravens have been known to hunt in pairs or small groups and have been tabbed as incredibly intelligent. They have followed humans throughout history waiting to try and find an easy meal. Due to the Raven’s intimidating stature and relation to death and darkness thanks to Edger Allen Poe, it takes the top spot in our countdown of Halloween birds in Wisconsin.

Think there are other birds that could also be on this list? Leave us a comment below.

Horicon Marsh in Early August

On Saturday, I met Derek up at Horicon Marsh. Lately, the best shorebird habitat has been at Horicon and some rare species have been located. One of the rarest has been the a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that has been seen off and on for the past week. While the sandpiper didn’t make an appearance there was still plenty to see.

Horicon Marsh
Horicon Marsh

When I arrived on highway 49 I saw an incredibly large number of birds on the mudflats to the south. Many were too far out to identify, but some of the closer birds turned out to be decent finds. Some notables were Wilson’s Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and Short-billed Dowitchers.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

On the north side of highway 49 were many Great Egrets and Great-blue Herons feeding on fish left behind by the drying water. Among the Egrets and Herons was a single Snowy Egret (a rare bird for the state with only a few reports each year). A few Least Sandpipers and Killdeer were also present.

Snowy Egret and Great-blue Heron
Snowy Egret and Great-blue Heron

After another quick scan of the south side oh 49 yielded no new birds, Derek headed out while I continued to the Auto Tour. I parked in the Auto Tour lot and walked down Old Marsh Road. Within 50 feet of walking I noticed a Least Bittern perched up on the reeds. This was the closest I had ever been to a Least Bittern so even though they aren’t rare it was a nice surprise. Farther down the road I added Sora, Virginia Rail, and Black Tern to my day list. On the way out of the auto tour I located a juvenile Common Gallinule.

Overall, I found several year birds with the Snowy Egret being the rarest. While the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper couldn’t be found, it was still a great day to be out.

Yellow-breasted Chat at Brooklyn Wildlife Area

Last Sunday (June 3, 2018), I decided to sample a few areas in the southern part of the state in both Dane and Sauk Counties. The trek began early in the morning at Brooklyn State Wildlife area located just south of Madison in Dane County. Several Field Sparrows perched up on my way down the trail. I was also serenaded by the songs of Brown Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. It wasn’t until I walked about half a mile in that I heard the distinct mewing and catcalling of a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT. I was able to locate the bird singing near the top of a nearby tree hunkered in it’s leaves.

This bird, about the size of a grosbeak, is often heard and not seen due to their elusive nature. Chats are found in areas with dense brush, such as thickets and forest openings and primarily seen in the southern part of the state. The Yellow-breasted Chat was once considered to be in the Wood Warbler family, but in 2017, this species became the only member of the Icteriidae family.

DSCN1588
Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, in the background is Pine Glen Gorge of Devils Lake State Park

After being satisfied by a decent show from the Chat, I moved north to Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. This area was formerly the Badger Army and Ammunition Plant, at one time the largest manufacturer of munitions in the world. The drive down the main road yielded some decent open country birds such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Clay-colored Sparrows. Most notable was a singing BELL’S VIREO not far from the entrance. After driving a few miles into the property I made it to the dense brush I was looking for. A singing WHITE-EYED VIREO sang its harsh, rapid song. Unfortunately, the bird never made an appearance before the wind picked up and activity died down.

Birding in Early June – Retzer Nature Center and Horicon Marsh

Today, Ryan and I got a late start to birding. We decided to star locally and we headed to one of our favorite spots: Retzer Nature Center. Our goal was to check if the Dickcissel had returned to the prairie. We arrived around 1 o’clock and started on our usual loop. At the pond was a single Green Heron perched on a log along with a couple of kids catching frogs. They didn’t seem to notice the Heron and the Heron did not seem disturbed by them. Further along the path were numerous Song Sparrows and American Goldfinches. We continued through the forest and found several black-capped Chickadees and American Robins. As we exited the forest and started on the edge habitat, several Indigo Buntings were calling and Tree Swallows flew overhead. The grass on the Oak was fairly tall but we did not hear any Henslow’s Sparrows or Dickcissel. After listening for about 10 minutes we continued up the hill and were amazed at the number of Bobolinks on the prairie making their metallic buzzing call. After stopping to appreciate them we continued our loop and ended up back at our car. It was fairly windy and there were gray clouds overhead most of the time, and we decided to head back home and check the birding reports.

Bobolink
Bobolink

When we got back home Ryan saw that Black-bellied Plovers, a Hudsonian Godwit, and Wilson’s Phalaropes were seen at Horicon Marsh. After some debate, we decided to take the hour and ten-minute drive up to the marsh in an attempt to see the birds. On the way, there was debate on which CDs to listen to and one missed exit but we eventually arrive around 4 o’clock. few stopped on Highway 49 and noticed there was a lot of shorebird activity. We pulled over and picked out Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt. We pulled up a little further and still didn’t see any sign of the Godwit but did pick out several Black-bellied Plovers. We pulled up even further (the good area was large) and eventually picked out the single Hudsonian Godwit searching for food! A new year bird for Ryan and I. There were many black terns flying around, and we were also able to find one White-rumped Sandpiper in the mix. Also present were Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and calling Sandhill Cranes.

We moved on to the other side of Highway 49 and noticed many Great Egrets. There were several photographers pulled over but it seemed like they weren’t looking at the Egrets. To our surprise there were 2 Ibis out in the field! We checked the faces to see what kind they were (Glossy or White-faced) and both seemed to be White-faced, one adult and one immature.

Horicon Marsh
Derek surveying the marsh

After observing the Ibis for a long time we headed to the auto tour and decided to walk Old Marsh Road to look for Least Bittern. With dark clouds looming overhead we cautiously walked out and noticed that there seemed to be many dried-up turtle eggs next to open holes in the ground. We weren’t sure if these were nests that had been predated or eggs that had simply hatched. Down the road, there were several flocks of White Pelicans, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Marsh Wrens. We traveled further than we originally planned, hoping to find some decent shorebird habitat but the water was too high. The only shorebird-like find was one Killdeer. On the way back we stopped to admire the call of a lunking American Bittern and one fly by Black-crowned Night Heron. We finished our loop on the auto tour noticing several American Coots, but not finding too much else. We made one more stop on Highway 49 and noticed one more Ibis and thought it must be a Glossy. Upon further observation it proved to be another White-faced, but we couldn’t be disappointed about seeing 3 Ibis on a trip where we didn’t expect to see any. We stopped one more time to admire the Hudsonian Godwit, Plovers, and Stilts before heading home, pleased with out day.

Notable Finds: Hudsonian Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, American Bittern, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis

Notable Misses: Wilson’s Phalarope, Whooping Crane