In Port Washington, Wisconsin, warm outflow from the WE Energies power plant keeps the water in and around the harbor open year round, even in the harshest of winter temperatures. The open water combined with an annual die off of Gizzard Shad create a literal and figurative hotspot for bird activity.
Getting to Know the Area
The Port Washington lake front is divided into different areas with each offering something slightly different in terms of bird habitat. The marina is lined with a break wall on all sides with a small opening to the east. This wall provides a great place for wintering gulls such as Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland gulls. In addition to gulls, Snowy Owls have also been known to station themselves on the large rocks of the break wall.
To the north of the marina inside of the break wall is a small sandy area where geese tend to congregate. Other than the many Canada Geese that reside in this area, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross’s Geese also make an occasional appearance. Just south of this area is open water amongst the piers. In this location, waterfowl are very active as the docks provide some cover.
South of the piers is where most of the birds can be found. Just north of Coal Dock Park is the most open water inside of the break wall. Here, Red-throated Loons can be found as well as American Black Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, and many other migratory species. East of coal dock park is a smaller section of open water surrounded on all sides by rocks. This section of the marina is connected to a canal that comes directly from the power plant. Many water birds enjoy this location as the water remains open and warm. Farther south is a bird sanctuary with a trail leading around the perimeter of the grounds. This sanctuary is home to American Tree Sparrows as well as other sparrow species in spring, summer, and fall.
What to Look For
While the waters around Port Washington Harbor provide a haven for birds year round, the winter months are when the harbor becomes most alive with bird activity. The combination of wintering and migrating waterfowl along with winter gulls. Numerous seasonal rarities have already been reported this year. When visiting, be on the look out for the following species:
While the weather is still cold, Port Washington harbor will remain a great place to bird. Eventually, as winter melts into spring, many of the winter birds residing in the harbor will move on and more migratory species will move through. If you’re in need of some waterfowl or gulls to add to your year list, it’s definitely the place to be so far in 2018.
Each winter, the search for food drives birds from the north woods into areas south of their summer range. This winter migration brings many new species within view of birders who eagerly search them out. One such species that makes this journey is the Common Redpoll. Common Redpolls are small, colorful finches that eat seeds and often show up at bird feeders.
While Common Redpolls can be scarce in certain years, another Redpoll species is even harder to find: The Hoary Redpoll. Hoary Redpolls look incredibly similar to Common Redpolls and they often flock together. In fact, they look so much alike that there has been talk about lumping them together into one species. For now, however, the two remain separate, and some key identification features can help to tell them apart.
While both birds have very small, triangular-shaped bills, the bill of the Common Redpoll is slightly larger. Hoary Redpolls will have a shorter bill than a Common Redpoll that will appear stubbier and more pushed in.
One of the most notable differences between the two species is the streaking on the chest. Common Redpolls have chest streaking that is more defined than in Hoary Redpolls. They also have bold streaking on the flanks, along with streaking on the rump and undertail coverts, which is either absent or subtle in Hoary Redpolls. Note the differences in the photos below with the heavy streaking on the Common Redpoll (Top Left and Top Right) vs. the Hoary Redpoll’s lack of streaking (Bottom Left and Bottom Right).
Common Redpoll’s streaked undertail coverts
Common Redpoll’s streaked rump
Hoary Redpoll’s white undertail coverts
Hoary Redpoll’s white rump
Crown and Chest
Another distinguishing characteristic of Redpolls are their red coloring on the crown and chest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls display bright red crowns, however the Hoary Redpoll’s crown is smaller and primarily at the front of the head, whereas the Common’s crown will extend back further. Additionally, the male Common Redpolls will have more red on their chest compared to the male Hoary Redpoll, which may have only washed out red coloration on the chest, or almost no red.
All in all, the Common Redpoll has a body coloration ranging from tan to brown, compared to the “frosted” and muted browns seen in Hoary Redpolls. The red on the breast of the males is typically more apparent in Common Redpolls, as is the red on the crown. When compared with Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls sometimes look like they are in black and white other than their darker red crown.
With winter approaching, these birds will start to pop up in local parks and bird feeders. Finding a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons can prove a difficult task to the untrained birder. Hopefully these ID tips can help you differentiate between the two species.
Birds in winter (non-breeding) plumage can be extremely difficult to identify, especially Grebes. With these tips, hopefully it makes identification a little easier, and will help to make you a “Grebe expert” in the field. The guide is broken up into 3 different size categories (Large/Medium-Large/Small) and discusses the most frequently seen Grebes in the state of Wisconsin.
Overview: The Western Grebe is a rare visitor to the state of Wisconsin. It is extremely similar to the Clark’s Grebe (which is far less-likely to be found in the state with the last ebird record dating back to 1987). They often show up as one solitary individual on a large body of water such as Lake Michigan. They are bright white and dark gray/black with a long, slender, yellow bill, and a red eye.
Bill: Long, thin, yellow bill. Bill is normally at least 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray body, black back and top of head and neck. White underside of neck and body. Stark contrast between white and dark coloration. Red eye.
Body Shape: Medium sized, large for grebes (21.7-29.5 inches). Similar to the size of a large Red-breasted Merganser (20.1-25.2 inches) or a smaller Common Loon (26-35.8 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Western Grebe is larger than most Grebe species except for the Red-necked Grebe which can be similar in size, although the Red-necked Grebe is far less bright, and more dull gray and white, compared to the bright white and black seen in the Western Grebe. Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than horned grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns (see photo below). The Western Grebe will have a longer, more slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as 3/4 the length of the head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Horned Grebe (winter plumage)
Western Grebe (winter plumage)
Overview: Red-necked grebes can be seen on larger bodies of water during migration in the winter months. They lose their bright summer colors and trade them in for dull gray-brown plumage. They are medium in size and larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species, but not as large as Western Grebes or Loons.
Bill: Bill is about 3/4 the length of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray to gray-brown body and top of head with white throat and cheek. The areas are not strongly defined and portions of the plumage appear “muddled”. Brown eye, yellow bill.
Body Shape: Medium sized, medium-large for grebes (16.9-22 inches). Comparable to the size of a Canvasback (18.9-22 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Red-necked Grebe is larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species and will be mostly gray-brown in color with some white near the face. The horned Grebe will have a smaller bill, and a whiter face when in winter (non-breeding) plumage. The Western Grebe will have a brighter white color than the non-breeding Red-necked grebe.
Overview: Horned Grebes are the most common gray and white grebe seen in the winter in Wisconsin. They are small in size, and multiple Horned Grebes are often seen in the same location, although they will not necessarily be “flocking” with each other.
Bill: Bill is less than 1/2 length of the head and fairly dark in coloration, black or gray.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray-brown body and top of head with white underside of throat and cheek. Red eye, with line coming down to base of bill.
Body Shape: Small and compact (12.2-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Bufflehead (12.6-15.7 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Horned Grebe can appear very similar to the Eared Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes. The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a Horned Grebe will not. The lack of “peaked” feathers, and more stark gray and white coloration also differentiates them from Eared Grebes. (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than Horned Grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns. The Western Grebe will have a longer, slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as its head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.
Overview: Despite the Eared Grebe being the most common grebe in the world, it is considered rare in Wisconsin. It is one of the “small” grebes and will normally show up solitary or flocking with similar sized birds. They often have “peaked” feathers on the head and are likely to be most confused with Horned Grebes in the winter.
Bill: Thin, dark in color, often can appear to be slightly pointing upwards. Less than 1/2 the size of the head.
Non-breeding coloration: Gray and white body with red eye. Most individuals have peaked feathers on top of their head. Some white is present on the throat and nape of the neck, along with some white visible on the flank.
Body Shape: small and robust, with peaked crown on top of head (11.8-13.8 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches). The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, as opposed to sloping into the water.
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Eared Grebe can appear very similar to the Horned Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). The back end of an eared grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a horned grebe will not. The shape of the head with the “peaked” feathers, and more mottled gray coloration and short, thin bill are also solid identification features.
Overview: During the winter the Pied-billed Grebe is often seen on larger bodies of water in small flocks. Their head is blocky and large compared to their smaller body. They often resemble a small “Loch-ness monster” shaped bird, and dive frequently. Therefore, when looking for Pied-billed grebes, make several scans.
Non-breeding coloration: Brown body (sometimes gray), brown eye.
Body Shape: small and lanky, with long neck compared to body (11.8-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches).
Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Pied-billed grebe is the only common grebe in Wisconsin that is small in size and brown in color. Their blocky head, slender neck, short and stocky bill also differentiate them from similar species.
All in all, picking through winter Grebes can be tricky, but knowing the key ID features can help you spot a rarity in Wisconsin. Whether it’s the “submarine-like” body of the Pied-billed Grebe, the “peaked” head of the Eared Grebe, or the long bill and neck of the Western Grebe, keep an eye out for the key characteristics that make all species of winter Grebes unique.
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.
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.
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.
On my second day in Boston I headed for the coast. I made the hour long walk to Castle Island Causeway. The causeway reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean creating rocky shore and beach habitat for birds and other marine creatures.
Starting on the south end of the causeway I worked my way north. On any pier jutting into the ocean there were Double-crested Cormorants and Herring Gulls. As far as species diversity I was once again disappointed. The beaches looked incredibly hospitable to migratory shorebirds but they were mostly empty. In addition to empty beaches, the ocean out past the causeway was also empty with the exception of a few gulls and cormorants. Perhaps the time of day factored in as boat traffic was persistent.
With few species on the shorelines I turned my attention to the gulls floating along inside break walls. I got great looks at Great Black-backed Gulls which are by no means rare in New England but can be rare in Wisconsin. Ring-billed gulls and a few Laughing Gulls were also present.
Walking along the edge of Castle Island I spotted a few Barn Swallows heading south along the ocean and my only shorebird species of the whole trip: A Black-bellied Plover. The plover was sitting on some rocks lining the causeway that slanted into the water. Near this area there was a lot of kelp and other plant matter washed up which looked like great habitat.
I made one more pass around the causeway but came up empty for new species. Overall I was disappointed with my lack of species at Castle Island but it was nice to be out at the ocean.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.