Category Archives: 2019 Birding Blog

Cackling Goose vs. Canada Goose

Almost everyone is familiar with the loud and abundant Canada Goose. Even non birders can pick out the familiar brown bodied, black and white faced bird best known for it’s v-shaped migratory pattern and its reputation for being easily irritated by passers by. However, there is another bird closely resembling the Canada Goose that makes its way across North America during migration: The Cackling Goose.

The Cackling Goose looks extremely similar to the Canada Goose. So similar in fact, that it was originally listed as a Canada Goose subspecies. Eventually, it was determined that the Cackling Goose was different enough to warrant its own species distinction. There are now 7 subspecies of Canada Geese and 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose with each subspecies having subtle differences. While at first glance, the two species are tough to tell apart, there are a some diagnostic characteristics that make differentiating the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose much easier.

Size

Cackling Geese
Looking at the image, the petit stature of the 3 Cackling Geese in front of the many Canada Geese is obvious

One of the most noticeable differences between the Canada Goose and Cackling Goose is overall size. The Canada Goose is by far larger with an average length of 76-110 cm and wing span of 127-170 cm compared the Cackling Goose’s much daintier 63-65 cm length and 108-111 cm wingspan. When standing side by side the difference is obvious with the Cackling Goose being closer in size to a Mallard than to a Canada Goose. However, the issue is that a direct comparison is not always possible. In addition, larger subspecies of Cackling Goose can be close to the size of a smaller subspecies of Canada Goose. For this reason, size alone is not always reliable.

Bill

The next distinguishing feature to note is the bill. The Canada Goose’s bill is long and gently sloping to give it a more pointed appearance. The Cackling Goose’s bill is stubbier and slopes down more rapidly; giving it a more triangular appearance. The Cackling Goose’s shorter bill is one of the key features that can be diagnostic in the field even when there are no Canada Geese nearby to compare with.

Neck

Canada Geese
This image shows how deceptive size and neck length can be. Both of these birds are Canada Geese but the bird in front looks a bit smaller and is not elongating its neck. However, the bills on both birds are nearly identical.

Much like bill length, neck length is also a key feature that differs in the two species. The Canada Goose has a comparatively longer neck than the short neck of the Cackling Goose. Even when fully extended, the Cackling Goose will still appear to have a shorter neck. This feature can be slightly deceptive as Canada Geese can appear to have short necks when they are resting and length can be largely dependent of position of the bird..

Other Features

There are a few other less noticeable features that differentiate the species as well. One thing to look for is primary projection. The wing tips of the Canada Goose typically do not stretch as far beyond the rump as those of the cackling Goose. This gives the Cackling Goose a slightly more elegant appearance.

The size and shape of the head can also be used as a diagnostic tool. The Canada Goose’s head is larger and has a more gentle sloped angle from the back of the head to the front. The Cackling Goose has a smaller and more rounded head.

Review

Cackling Geese
Here is a good comparison to note all ID features of the Cackling Goose. The two birds in the middle of the image are smaller in size with stubby necks, stubby bills, rounded heads, and slightly longer primary feathers than the Canada Geese around them.

Canada Goose

Larger Size
Long pointed bill
Long neck
Shorter primary projection
Flatter sloping head

Cackling Goose

Smaller size
Short, stubby, triangular bill
Short neck
Longer primary projection
Small rounded head

Canada Goose vs. Cackling Goose can certainly be a challenging ID. Since most of the differentiating features are comparative, it can especially difficult to make an identification when there are no other birds around for perspective. With both species varying wildly in size due to many subspecies, no one characteristic should be used to disseminate the two. Instead, all characteristics together can help paint a clearer picture of which birds are Canada Geese and which are Cackling Geese.

Why the House Sparrow should be the USA’s National Bird

There are few symbols that represent the United States of America better than the Bald Eagle. The image of a soaring eagle is emblematic of freedom, courage, and bravery. While the Bald Eagle has long been accepted as the best choice to represent our country, it has not been without its detractors. Founding Father Ben Franklin had a famous distaste for eagles, once stating this in a letter:

“For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. “

If not the Bald Eagle, then what other bird could possibly be suited for this proud nation? According to lore, Franklin preferred the Wild Turkey as the bird to best represent the United States as he viewed the species as intelligent and cunning. However, there could be one often overlooked species that would be an even better fit: The House Sparrow.

Before angrily closing your laptop, hear me out on this one. The much maligned House Sparrow may have more in common with Americans than first meets the eye.

Shared History

The ancestors of House Sparrows living in the United States today were not native to North America, but rather introduced in 1851 in Brooklyn New York. They were introduced again in San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the 1870s. They found this new habitat suitable and by 1900 had made their way across the entire mainland USA with populations stretching from coastline to coastline.

It’s easy to have ill feelings toward a species that inhabits a land that was not their own,  but then again most of our ancestors arrived from other countries as well. Much like the adventurous House Sparrow, many immigrants arrived in New York and California to start their new lives in the United States. The first immigrants that arrived in the United States in 1620 initially struggled in their quest to find a better life. Eventually, their descendants along with other immigrants expanded westward, and much like the House Sparrow began to thrive. As new Americans moved across the nation, so did the House Sparrow, often prospering in areas already inhabited by humans.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

Shared Habitat

While most native species spend their time away from human activity, House Sparrows thrive in it. Like other non-native species such as European Starlings and Pigeons, House Sparrows can be found near almost any man-made structure including houses, bridges, brush piles and many more. House Sparrows not only live with humans but also dine with them, frequently eating discarded food scraps and utilizing backyard bird feeders. The fact that these birds have found a way to live right alongside people sets them apart from many other species that inhabit North America.

Well we’d like to believe that we are adventurous and prefer to be exploring the outdoors, in reality, most of us prefer our comfortable nests in the city. This is also true of the House Sparrow as they actually prefer to utilize man-made structures and birdhouses rather than natural tree cavities.

Shared Characteristics

House Sparrows have a habit of being quite nasty to other species. While nesting they will harass any other bird that gets close to their nest and even violently attack nesting birds in an attempt to evict them from nest holes that they want. Many nature enthusiasts harbor disdain for House Sparrows because of this brash aggression toward anything that flies. Bird lovers also despise them due to their tendency to displace native species. However, as human habitation continues to infringe on natural areas it becomes clear that we may have more in common with House Sparrows than we’d like to believe. In 2009 there were nearly 2,000 species of plants and animals listed as endangered in North America. Most of those have habitat loss noted as the primary reason.

Though it’s easy to dwell on the negative correlations between House Sparrows and Americans, there are many things to be proud of when it comes to this bird. They are very social, living in groups communicating with each other often. They display great courage in the face of much larger enemies and fiercely defend their families. They are resilient and adaptive and have found a way to proliferate an entire continent. While the House Sparrow may be a nuisance to other bird species, they do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of their own species. Surely that is found in human beings as well.

Final Thoughts

The House Sparrow is an impressively adaptive species that carved out a niche for itself in a land it didn’t originally belong in. They have successfully found a way to co-exist with human beings and have withstood the freezing winters and harsh summers of the North America to live in nearly every state. The House Sparrows defends itself and its family with courage and ferocity even in the face of a much larger foe.

While the House Sparrow gets a bad rap, If one looks below the surface, it’s easy to see ourselves in this species even if we don’t want to admit it. This little bird has beaten the odds; ascending beyond its small stature to become a fixture in many North American environments. With a story similar to our own, this formerly European species is now just as American as we are. For that reason, the House Sparrow would be the perfect National bird for the United States.

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.

 

Birding Rainy Milwaukee

On a cold Thursday in May, a report came through of Willets and American Avocets at Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee. In spite of the fact that the temperature was in the 40s and a steady rain poured over the entirety of southern Wisconsin, we decided to brave the weather and go see these annual, but still difficult to find birds.

When we arrived we could see numerous Herring Gulls dotting the grass and sand but couldn’t make out anything that looked like shorebirds. As we got closer, we noticed two dark shapes a few feet out from the beach. We were excited to see that these were American Avocets. We then noticed a group of five Willets that were tucked behind a large boulder and just now coming out. We stayed to enjoy these interesting birds for as long as we could until we were soaked to the point where we feared that our cameras would get too waterlogged.

We moved up the coast of Milwaukee to McKinley Beach. Here we found many Caspian Terns and two significantly smaller Common Terns. Also out over the water were hundreds of migrating Double-crested Cormorants.

Willet
Willet

Further north, we surveyed the area near Linwood treatment plant where we had a nice variety of sparrows including Swamp, Savannah, Song, and White-crowned. We also located Hermit Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and our first of year Black and White Warbler. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a lone male Bobolink calling from a large tree. I have had them in this location before so perhaps its a more common area for them than I realize.

Our final stop of the afternoon was Lake Park. Here we found White-crowned Sparrows, Northern Flickers, more Hermit Thrushes, and a Brown Thrasher. In the trees was a large group of warblers but the persistent rain and dark sky made them appear to be nothing more but black shadows against gray. A few of them dropped low enough for us to start distinguishing some features. The only non yellow-rumped in the group was an Orange-crowned Warbler. At this location, the most interesting bird was a Wilson’s Snipe that was feeding in some of the puddles in the grass.

Overall, for such a nasty weather day, we had a pretty good time birding. Even so, we were happy to go back home and change into some dry clothes.