All posts by rmsallmanngmailcom

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.

Manitowoc And Sheboygan Lakefront

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.

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser

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.

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Spotted Sandpipers

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.

Notable misses in Manitowoc were Bonaparte’s Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, and Little Gulls that usually summer there.

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.

Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls

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!

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Retzer In July

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.

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Indigo Bunting

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.

When I got to the prairie trail I was unable to hear many of the calls that were so prolific just a month ago. There were not any Dickcissel or Bobolink, and only one Henslow’s Sparrow. There were however still many Field Sparrows and Clay-Colored Sparrows.

Immature Field Sparrow
Immature Field Sparrow

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.

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Female Common Yelowthroat

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.

Birds Of Watonwan County, Minnesota

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.

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We stayed on a farm surrounded on all sides by corn fields. Driving down the long gravel driveway the first birds I noticed were the many Killdeer scurrying along the sides of the roads as we passed. Also on the roads were the occasional Horned Lark. Driving past the cornfields there wasn’t much in terms of avian life with the exception of the occasional Red-Winged Blackbird popping up from the low corn stalks or Barn Swallow flying overhead. The farm house was in a grove of trees creating a small forest island otherwise completely surrounded by fields. This small oasis was where the majority of the birds could be found. Black-Capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, Downy Woodpeckers, Common Grackles, ad White-Breasted Nuthatches were routine feeder visitors and Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles were present but made fewer appearances.

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.

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Great-Crested Flycatcher

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.

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House Wren

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.

Blue Grosbeak vs. Indigo Bunting

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.

Dawn Scranton
Indigo Bunting – Photo by Dawn Scranton

Size

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.

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Blue Grosbeak – Photo by Mike McDowell

Range

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.

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Blue Grosbeak Range

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.

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Indigo Bunting Range

Bill

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.

Field Markings

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.

Alan Schmierer
Blue Grosbeak – Photo By Alan Schmierer

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.

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Indigo Bunting – Photo by John Flannery

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.

We hope you found this article helpful. Please feel free to contact us to suggest other similar articles or provide feedback.

Spring Green Preserve – Wisconsin’s Desert

Today Derek and I headed out to Sauk County to look for some birds, reptiles, and insects at one of the most unique environments in the state: Spring Green Preserve. Spring Green is located in the south central part of the state and is one of the most arid places in the state. “Wisconsin’s Desert” is complete with sand, cacti, and numerous flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the state.

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We made the two hour drive and arrived a little after 7 am. We were immediately greeted by swarms of small insects buzzing around our faces. For the early part of the morning the small gnats and flies were nearly insufferable but we pressed on. We heard several loud calls coming from the Prairie as we broke the thresh hold between the parking area and the preserve. The preserve itself is relatively small with only one trail that leads from the lot into the large ridges that prevent moisture from getting to the sandy ground. One call that stood out was that of the Dickcissel. This has been a good year for the species and Spring Green is perhaps one of their greatest strongholds in Wisconsin. It seemed like every short tree and shrub had a Dickcissel on top.

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Dickcissel

If not a Dickcissel on a particular tree top it was a Lark Sparrow. Lark Sparrows can be found in other counties but they are more seldom reported. At Spring Green they are extremely numerous. This gave us a great opportunity to watch some of their behavior. The sparrows were constantly chasing each other from tree to tree and gathering large grasshoppers and other insects. There was even one Lark Sparrow that nonchalantly hopped on the trail just a few feet ahead of us gathering insects and acting oblivious to our presence.

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Lark Sparrow

One other very loud species on the Prairie was the Grasshopper Sparrow. These sparrows earned their name from their insect-like buzzing noise they make as well as the fact that they grasshoppers make up a large portion of their diet. Grasshopper Sparrows belong to a group of elusive sparrows known as Ammodramus Sparrows. This group of birds likes to skulk in tall grasses and other plants. They are often difficult to find, but these Grasshopper Sparrows perched up very nicely for us to view.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

After a while we were joined by Rob Pendergast and continued searching. By the time Rob arrived a nice breeze had picked up over the preserve and a lot of the insect activity had subsided. We walked back the same way on the trail we had paced back and forth on earlier and came across one of the local reptiles: a Blue Racer. Blue Racers are among the fastest snakes in North America. They can be found in prairies and Oak Savannas in the western half of the state. This one was lazily slithering near the trail and eventually climbed a small tree.

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Blue Racer

Also present near the same area was another quick reptile: The Prairie Racerunner. Much like the Blue Racer, these lizards have incredible speed (up to 18 mph.) We found them quickly running across the sand trail and sunning themselves on rusted sheet metal.

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Prairie Racerunner

As we walked the trail we picked up some other bird species that call the preserve home. An Indigo Bunting sang loudly from the largest dead tree in site and Orchard Orioles created a chorus along with Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks on both ends of the trail where more trees were growing. Many other common birds such as Mourning Doves, Robins and Blue Jays were in the area as well.

Having thoroughly searched for all avian activity in the area, we turned our attention to some unique invertebrates. Spring Green is known by a proud few for its Tiger Beetles. Nine (possibly 10) species of this small but veracious predatory insect make Spring Green their home. We were able to find three species of them. The Oblique-Lined, the Festive, and the Big Sand. They would fly and sometimes run along the path we were walking. Much like everything else we encountered, the Tiger Beetles are extremely fast movers. So fast in fact that while they run after their prey they go temporarily blind until they stop moving.

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Big Sand Tiger Beetle

In all, we were pleased with out day in the desert. We missed out on two rare birds that were reported recently (Blue Grosbeak and Northern Mockingbird), but seeing the other interesting birds, reptiles, and insects made the trip well worth it. It’s not everyday we get to explore such a unique ecosystem in our home state.

Retzer Nature Center In June

Yesterday I took a quick walk through one of my favorite local birding locations: Retzer Nature Center. Retzer is on a relatively small piece of land but has many types of habitat including deciduous woods, coniferous woods, and prairie. Many different bird species call Retzer home so birding there is always an enjoyable experience.

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East side of the hill

From the parking lot I started out walking south into the deciduous forest. After a short time I got eyes on a few Indigo Buntings calling in the trees and heard a few Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. The wooded area has not been as good in recent years but Blue-Winged Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Eastern Towhees can often be found there.

I eventually walked out of the forest after tallying a few species and started up the large hill on the eastern part of the nature center. This area opens into an oak savanna with trees periodically pooping up out of the golden grasses. This is where I usually find the most bird numbers and diversity. Today was no exception. The first bird I spotted was a Field Sparrow hopping around the branches of a small Oak tree. Near the sparrow was a very chattery House Wren perched on a dead branch. Almost directly above me was an Eastern Kingbird that was kind enough to pose for a few photos.

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Eastern Kingbird

I continued up the hill further where I found more Field Sparrows and heard some Eastern Bluebirds. One surprise was an immature Orchard Oriole perched on one of the top branches of a dead tree. Before this, i had never seen that species present before at the nature center.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

I stopped at a bench at the top of the hill and listened for other field birds. I could easily hear the call of at least three Henslow’s Sparrows and the buzzing of Clay-Colored Sparrows. none of the Henslow’s decided to make an appearance but they are still fun to listen to. Off in the distance, the distinctive metallic and bubbly call of the Bobolink could be heard. They are annual nesters at Retzer and one of my favorite birds simply because of their interesting call. I was able to spot one up at the top of a medium sized oak.

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Bobolink

I continued north on the hill to where a tractor lane intersects the trail. This is where I heard two calls out to west that I recognized as Dickcissel. Dickcissel are another species that has been known to nest at Retzer. They are very sensitive when nesting so I didn’t get too close. Fortunately one was calling from a tall tree that could get a clear view of.

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Dickcissel

After watching the Dickcissel for a few minutes I moved into the trail that cuts through the tall green grass on the east side of the hill. Here there were three more Henslow’s Sparrows calling, Tree Swallows, Savannah Sparrows, and more Bobolinks calling than I could keep track of. They were constantly flying up out of the grass while making their bubbling call and landing back in a different spot only to disappear completely.

I eventually headed out of the prairie and into another small wooded area near the parking lot. Here I heard and eventually caught a glimpse of an Eastern Towhee.

I left with a total of 24 species after just an hour of birding. Not a bad day at all bird wise and a great day to be out at one of my favorite local nature centers.

Kettle Moraine State Forest Oak Savanna

On Monday I traveled a few miles south to the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in hopes of finding some interesting reptiles. While no snakes or lizards were anywhere to be found, there were some quality birds in the area.

I started on a horse trail that led into the woods and eventually opened up into a grassy area. This savanna had numerous small oak trees along with copious amounts of sand and small shrubs. As I walked I picked out a lot fo the more common summer bird sounds such as Yellow Warblers, Eastern Wood Pewees, and Common Yellowthroats. While I was turning over some logs close to the savanna, a bird flew in my direction. Though it was moving quickly I could see a long white tipped tail. Piecing together the habitat with the field marks I saw, my first thought was Lark Sparrow. Lark Sparrows are not common in most parts of the state so i wanted to get a better look to be sure.

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Lark Sparrow

I saw another bird take off and join the first bird in flight. the two landed near train tracks and i was able to get a better view. The two birds were in fact Lark Sparrows! Feeling excited I snapped a few photos and moved on.

Around the prairie I heard several Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Field Sparrows but nothing of great note. I eventually moved into a more forested area and had my second solid sighting of the morning when two Scarlet Tanagers flew past me and landed in the nearby trees. Scarlet Tanagers are by no means rare, but I hadn’t seen or heard one yet this year which made these bright birds a welcome sighting.

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Scarlet Tanager

After wondering the trail for a little longer without finding any interesting birds or reptiles i headed home. The end of May ushers in the warm summer months when most of the birds have already migrated through and the nesting species are still left. Fortunately, many of the most interesting birds in the state are Wisconsin nesters.