Rare Warblers To Watch For This Spring

Just about every birder in the Midwest loves the arrival of spring migrants. During these months, no bird is more highly anticipated than warblers. These colorful and fast moving birds captivate the birding community for at least a month each year as everyone tries to gorge themselves on viewing as many of them as they can for the fleeting time they are here. While most species of warblers are easy to find during migration, there are some that are extremely rare. Some of these species are reported annually while others are only seen once or twice in a ten year span. Either way, finding one of these warblers can make even the most routine day birding into an instantly memorable day.

Black-Throated Gray Warbler

Extremely Rare

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

The Black-throated Gray warbler is aptly named for its black throat and dusky gray back is an extreme rarity in the Midwest with few individuals straying east of Colorado. At first glance, this species could be mistaken for a Black and White Warbler or a Blackpoll Warbler. Upon closer inspection, the Black-throated Gray Warbler has a distinctive yellow marking on the face near the bill. This species has been seen twice in Wisconsin since 2010 with all sightings occurring in May in either Dane or Ozaukee County. Black-throated Gray Warblers have also been seen in Minneapolis and north of Chicago. The most likely way to find one is to get out during May migration and check each black and white colored warbler very carefully.

Townsend’s Warbler

Extremely Rare

Townsend's Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler

The Townsend’s Warbler is another bird of Western North America that rarely strays out of its normal range. Their back is greenish yellow, their wings are black with two white wing bars, and their chest is yellow with black streaks. They have a dark cap, black throat, and distinctive yellow crescent shaped marking on the side of the face. Upon first glance they look similar to the much more common Black-throated Green Warbler, but with a closer look the differences are noticeable. Since 2010 there have been three instances of Townsend’s Warblers in Wisconsin. One bird seen at Pheasant Branch in Madison in May of 2014, one bird visiting a feeder in Kewaunee in December of 2016, and one interesting report of a bird landing on a boat 10 miles off-shore near Manitowoc in September of 2010. There seems to be very little pattern to the appearance of Townsend’s Warblers in our state but they do visit bird feeders so it’s possible that one could show up at a birders residence.

Prairie Warbler

Rare but Annual

Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler

The normal range of Prairie Warblers spans from the eastern Central America in winter all the way up to the Atlantic coast of Maine. Their visits to Wisconsin are few and far between with roughly one or two sightings each year. Males have a bright yellow underside with bold black streaking on the flanks and gray wings with a chestnut brown patch on the upper part of the back. They have a black semicircle under the eye. Females look similar but with more muted colors and a more grayish head. Prairie Warblers are not uncommon in lower Midwestern states but in Wisconsin the best place to find them is in the southeastern counties along Lake Michigan. There was one reliable Prairie Warbler present for five years straight during May Wisconsin’s South Kettle Moraine State Forest, but that bird has since moved on.

Kirtland’s Warbler

Annual and Breeding

Kirtland’s Warblers have a dark gray back with black streaks. Their throat and underside is bright yellow and they have distinct white markings directly above and below the eye. Males have a dark marking between their eye and bill while females are more drab with darker speckling on their underside. While not the most extravagant species, they are one of the rarest warbler species in North America due to their incredibly stringent habitat requirements for nesting. They require Jack Pines around 5-6 feet tall and leave the area once the pines exceed 10-15 feet. These birds winter in the Caribbean and migrate primarily to Michigan in the spring with a population also breeding in Wisconsin. Since this species is sensitive, there is little information on ebird about where to find them in Wisconsin but they do show up from time to time along their migratory path as well as in their top secret breeding grounds.

Worm-Eating Warbler

Annual and Breeding

Worm-eating Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler

The range of the Worm-eating Warbler is similar to that of the Prairie Warbler from Central America up the east coast and breeding east of Texas. This species is easily distinguished from other warbler species by its large pinkish bill and black head stripes on an otherwise buffy bird. Worm-eating Warblers live in areas with steep slopes and dense understory. They can be found in various places resembling this habitat in Wisconsin including Milwaukee, Madison, along the Mississippi River, and Devil’s Lake State Park. When trying to find this species listen for their high pitched buzzing call which sounds similar to that of a Chipping Sparrow.

Honorable Mentions

Other than the five species mentioned above, there are a few other warbler species that can be hard to find but are all expected to be reported several times a year or that breed in known locations in Wisconsin. Here is a brief listing of these species:

Connecticut Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Cerulean Warbler

These species are always nice to find. Especially if they are found away from their expected locations.

Final Thoughts

May is truly an exciting month for birders as millions of birds are on the move. With a bevy of different habitats in Wisconsin and rare species showing being reported across the state, who knows what bird might show up next. Hopefully, some of those reading this will have success finding one of these rare species in Wisconsin to make the month of May that more special.

 

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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.

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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

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.

 

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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.