Ryan Sallmann has been involved with tennis for nine years as a player, coach, and writer. Ryan starting playing tennis at the age of 16 in high school in Wisconsin. He then went on to play for Wisconsin Lutheran College in route to helping them win their conference and secure a bid to the NCAA tournament. Ryan coached at Waukesha West High School, Waukesha Tennis Association, Milwaukee Tennis and Education Foundation, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. Ryan also writes for Stripe Hype and Brew Sports.
Last Wednesday while staying on the west side of Lake Winnebago, Derek and I decided to take the half hour trip around the lower part of the lake to look for Cattle Egrets. Cattle Egrets technically are not considered rare for this part of the state but they can be tough to find some years.Fortunately, our girlfriends also agreed to join us in our search.
We turned onto lake shore drive where most of the sightings occur and almost immediately spotted a single Cattle Egret in a grassy field to the north of the road. It seemed to be content to sit by the small creek running through grass. We spent some time watching it and listening to a calling Eastern Wood-Peewee before moving on to see if we could find more.
We continued down the road in the direction of some large groups of cows hoping we could find egrets following close behind. We struck out on more egrets but we did find a field with about 200 Ring-billed Gulls and a weird looking hawk that was most likely a juvenile Red-tailed.
We were about to turn around and head back when my girlfriend Bri (aka the worlds greatest egret spotter) noticed some small white shapes in the distance way off to the south east. We immediately got excited when we noticed a crass street that could take us right next to where this group of egrets were. We became even more excited when we saw 12 of them all at close range associating with the cattle.
We had a great time watching them lurk around the cattle and pick insects and other items up from the weeds. Occasionally they would take flight and relocate further down the field, but they would always return to the cows.
It’s always hard to rip yourself away from cool birds but we wanted to give them some space so we took off back to the house on the west side of the lake feeling great about our close up sighting.
Derek and I met up at Horicon Marsh to see if we could find any cool wetland birds before they head south for the winter. We started out at Marsh Haven Nature Center to look around a bit before venturing into the marsh. We saw a juvenile Chipping Sparrow at the feeders and the usual Purple Martins chattering above the Martin houses.
Next, we started on the Auto Tour loop. I thought the loop could take us an hour or maybe an hour and a half if we walked some of the trails. We were breezing through it as the first pond contained a few ducks and some Great Egrets. However, when we got to Old Marsh Road we got out and started walking the trail east.
We immediately saw some common birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches. after a few hundred yards onto the road we started seeing usual marsh suspects such as Pied-Billed Grebes and Wood Ducks. These were two of the most numerous species on the trail. In the watery areas to the north we located more Wood Ducks and an American Coot family with parents and young. Farther down we heard the call of a Virginia Rail that we were unfortunately never able to get a visual of. All the while, Marsh Wrens made their clattering noise from the tall reeds.
We continued on and came to the only shaded spot on the trail where we took a minute to relax before continuing. From this location east, the water opened up more and we saw gulls and American White Pelicans and a family of Common Gallinules. We were hoping to see a Least Bittern in this area as I saw one there last year. We got excited for a second as a small bird took off from the shoreline nearest to us and headed out to the opposite bank but it turned out to be one of three Spotted Sandpipers in the vicinity.
We turned the corner of the trail and went south for a short while. Suddenly, a small heron-like bird flew across the trail directly in front of us. It was a Least Bittern! It reached the reed line and vanished completely. I was able to get a blurry photo of its back but that was it.
From there we continued to follow the road when it turned east again and revealed drying mud flats. Canada Geese and Killdeer were numerous in this location and it was the best shorebird habitat we had seen to that point. there was a large flock of peeps that flew low over the mud but basically disappeared from our view somewhere out in the mud where we couldn’t see them. We happened upon several Least Sandpipers and a Stilt Sandpiper close to the path. Out in the tall grass was a weird looking bird that seemed to ungracefully walk through the weeds. At first I thought it was another Stilt Sandpiper but it turned out to be a non breeding plumage Wilson’s Phalarope. I had never seen one out of the water before so it was a unique experience for me.
We figured it was time to head back to the car since we’d already spent about an hour and a half on Old Marsh Road Alone. On the way we stopped and scanned for the Least Bittern. Derek was able to pick it out on the opposite shore (an impressive feat). This was the first time we were ever able to get a recognizable photo of one before even though it was long range. We also noticed a few Yellow-Headed Blackbirds on the way back. Most of them seemed to have moved on already so we were happy to find a few left.
After a long walk back we cruised through the rest of the auto tour and headed over to 49. We stopped near a parched Double-Crested Cormorant and were flagged down by another birder. They pointed out four Trumpeter Swans extremely close to the road. This was the Trumpeter Swan family that people had been watching all year with two adults and two cygnets. They seemed to have no worries about people being within 20 feet of them. Also on 49 were several Black Terns and Swamp Sparrows.
With it starting to get late in the day we made our last stop at Point Road which is the other end of Old Marsh Road. We were hoping to see some Black-Necked Stilts the had been reported their earlier but we had no luck. There were some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs but otherwise, the shorebirds were few and far between. The highlight of this location was a Sora that popped out at close range for a few minutes. These birds aren’t rare but they are elusive and tough to get a good look at.
In all, our trip was a success finding the Least Bittern and the Wilson’s Phalarope along with some of the usual suspects. We may be making another trip or two out there as summer turns into fall and more shorebirds come through, assuming some habitat develops.
Some of the most interesting birds to watch were the many swallows swirling around our dock. To the south, Purple Martins could be heard and sometimes seen. From the north, Northern Roughed-winged Swallows flew threw, and just one dock away a colony of Barn Swallows gathered and dispersed every fifteen minutes or so. At the end of the day we were mesmerized by the swallows swooping just inches away from the water’s surface with the sunset colors in the background.
It was a decent birding day given the fact that we weren’t specifically trying to bird. We’ll see if we can find anything else interesting the rest of the week. Stay tuned.
Yesterday Derek and I met Rob in Manitowoc to see if we could find any interesting birds out on the lake. We started out checking the impoundment where there was a surprising lack of gull diversity. The only species present were Ring-Billed Gulls. Walking out to the impoundment we saw many Mallards and two Hooded Mergansers. Upon arriving at the walkway that circles the small lagoon we looked out over the shoreline with the sun in our eyes. There were two Tern species: Caspian and Forster’s, a Great Blue Heron, and several American White Pelicans. On the far shore we were able to see some peeps. Two were Semipalmated Sandpipers and one was a Least.
We walked around the the lagoon hopping from rock to rock to try and get a view of the birds sitting on the sand bar. Along the way we encountered high numbers of Song Sparrows. Most of the time they could be heard but not seen. We also located a few Spotted Sandpipers that would fly in front of us in order to stay a comfortable distance away.
By the time we got to the east side of the impoundment many of the gulls had departed from the lagoon, as a result we continued on toward the many gulls that were sitting on the break wall. On the way there, a crowd of Barn Swallows lifted off from the grasses. The birds swirled around us and some landed on the taller, stronger stalks. Almost simultaneously someone with a dog spooked all of the gulls. Feeling a bit dejected we continued around and located two silhouetted Short-Billed Dowitchers.
Next we headed to Sheboygan where we were primarily going to check the north point. There were many birds sitting on the rock shelf just off-shore. Many of these birds were Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls but we did see some Bonaparte’s Gulls and what appeared to be a pair of first cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gulls. Two Spotted Sandpipers flew from rock to rock on the shore and on the rock island. We also noticed Double-Crested Cormorants, Caspian Terns, Forster’s Terns, and Common Terns. We once again missed out on Franklin’s Gulls at this location.
In all, we didn’t have a great day at the lake as we didn’t come up with any difficult to find birds but it was still great to be outside and get the chance to look!
Today I went to Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha County to see how things have changed with July winding down. I started by taking the northeastern trail that leads to the pond. The usual birds were in this area including American Goldfinches and Common Yellowthroats. I was able to get a good look at a Common Yellowthroat singing in a tree but the mosquitoes and deer flies were so bad I didn’t stay still long enough to get an in-focus picture. This was a theme today. The bugs were easily the wort I’ve ever encountered at Retzer. The precipitation we’ve had combined with the lac of wind was the perfect storm for them today and they followed me all the way through the forested part of the Nature Center.
I moved through the forest trail quickly hoping to lose the bugs following me when I got into the open prairie. While I was in the woods I heard a few Indigo Buntings and saw numerous American Robins. I also startled a deer munching on plants.
On the north side of the hill all of the tall grass was cut eliminating habitat for the Henslow’s and Savannah Sparrows. However, in the tree line farther north and tall grasses to the east there were still large numbers of birds. Most of these were juvenile Indigo Buntings and Field Sparrows but there were also several Eastern Kingbirds, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, more Common Yellowthroats, and an Eastern Towhee.
On the way out of the Nature Center I got looks at a Gray Catbird and a Red-Eyed Vireo that was too crafty for me to get a photo of. The insects followed me the whole time until I got to the car.
I would have liked more time to search through the birds on the north side of the Nature Center but the bugs proved to be too much to deal with for me. Next time I’ll make sure there’s more of a breeze before I go.
This weekend I traveled to Watonwan County in Minnesota for a wedding. Based on the ebird statistics, Watonwan doesn’t appear to be birded very frequently with the exception of a few individuals. Due to wedding festivities my birding efforts were mostly incidental, but I was still able to get over 20 species in the short time I had.
The noisiest birds on the property were the House Wrens. They chattered from all sides of the house and occasionally perched out in the open, never for very long though. Some other loud species in the surrounding woods were the Great-Crested Flycatchers and Eastern Wood-Pewees. I could hear at least two of each species.
We drove a few miles down the county roads through the corn fields in order to get to some tennis courts in the small town of St. James. On the way, we stopped by a field where long grasses were growing and a small creek intersected the gravel road. This section of the road seemed to be the epicenter of bird activity as many Red-Winged Blackbirds were flying around the field and landing on the corn stalks that lined the edge of the field. A Belted Kingfisher suddenly perched up on a wire near the creek and an Eastern Kingbird landed in the middle of the road and caught an insect. At least two Dickcissel could be heard calling in the field. One of them ended up perching in a nearby deciduous plant.
We continued to the St. James tennis courts after watching the field for about ten minutes. Even when playing tennis I’m always keeping an eye on the birds. There were House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and American Robins in the trees and other structures around the courts. Overhead there were six Chimney Swifts clicking and chattering.
In my limited time birding I came up with 26 species. None of them would be considered rare, but it was still a nice experience finding birds in the open fields of southern Minnesota.
With summer upon us, some of the brightest colored birds in North America are nesting all across the country including the Midwest. Two of these birds that can be somewhat difficult to tell apart without knowing the field markings are the Blue Grosbeak and the Indigo Bunting. Both of these species are bright blue, frequently overlap in geographic range, and can be found around the same habitat. This means birders are likely to encounter both at some point. The good news is that there are some surefire ways to differentiate the two.
As far as size is concerned. There is a discernible difference between a Blue Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting. Blue Grosbeaks typically range between 15 and 16 cm while Indigo Buntings are between 12 and 13 cm. This means that in theory, an Indigo Bunting should never be as large as even a relatively small Blue Grosbeak. While it is hard to tell size on a single bird by itself, a side by side comparison shows this difference distinctly.
The range of these two species differs slightly with much of it overlapping.
Blue Grosbeaks general range is as far south as Central America during the winter months and as far north as North Dakota in summer. They span from the west coast to the east coast and can be found readily in the southern states. While the Blue Grosbeak is widespread in the United States, their basic range does not typically go north of Colorado and Indiana with only a few individuals spotted annually during summer in states like Wisconsin. They do however appear farther north in the central part of the United States as they also summer in Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
Much like the Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Buntings winter as far south as Central America. This bright blue bird also inhabits most of the southern United States with the exception of parts of Arizona and Texas. It is also notable to note that the Indigo Buntings range seems to skip over western Mexico. Unlike Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings make their way much farther north in summer as they are found in every state east of Montana and even southern parts of Canada.
Bill size is a solid way to differentiate between these two species. The indigo Bunting has a relatively small, conical bill while the Blue Grosbeak has a comparatively larger bill. In addition, The Indigo Bunting has a completely one colored gray/silver bill. The Blue Grosbeak often sports a two colored bill with a darker gray on the upper mandible and lighter gray on the bottom mandible.
Though both of these birds are a very similar shade of blue, there are some differences in pattern and coloration that go a long way in identification.
The Blue Grosbeak has a small black mask near the base of the bill going over the eye that the Indigo Bunting lacks. They also have very distinctive rusty wing bars that serve as an extremely reliable field marking. Female Blue Grosbeaks lack the deep blue of the males (instead they are a dark tan/light brown color) but still have the same rust colored wing bars.
Indigo Buntings are almost entirely blue with some of their only other coloring being a varied gray to black on their wings. They do have a very small amount of black near the base of the bill but not nearly to the degree that the Blue Grosbeak does. Females are a lighter shade of tan than the Blue Grosbeak and lack the wing bars of the Blue Grosbeak females.
Image comparison of females
These two species often co-exist in the same habitat and overlap readily in the United States and Mexico. Even in ranges where only one of these species would be expected. It is good to know the ways to tell them apart just in case.
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